After completing one of the most impressive road trips in franchise history, the Jets return home this Sunday for a battle with the AFC West leading Denver Broncos. Wins over New England and Tennessee have made it clear this is the most talented Jets team since 1998. Denver was the team to end that dream season ten years ago as New York squandered a 10 point second half lead and essentially handed John Elway a second consecutive AFC Championship. Fans can expect to see plenty of the brutal highlights of that contest. The Jets have a chance to exorcise forty years worth of demons this winter. A win this Sunday would be as symbolic in this sense as it would be important in the standings.
The Jets are officially the team to beat in the AFC. They just went on the road and pounded a previously undefeated club. This is the third straight week Gang Green is matched up against a division leader, but this is different. This home game is quite winnable. Nobody thinks Denver is a threat in this conference. The Broncos leading their division is more of an indictment of the West than anything else. That team would likely be in last place if it was in the East. With five winnable games finishing the regular season, this game will be the first indication as to whether the Jets take care of business against inferior opponents in the manner which championship teams do.
The Broncos are led by Mike Shanahan. This space had nothing but praise a week ago for Jeff Fisher, a coach with a thinner resume on paper than Shanahan. The Denver coach does have a pair of Super Bowl wins under his belt, but his name never comes up when lists of the best coaches in the league come out. There is a reason. Since that second Super Bowl title, Shanahan has a single Playoff win. This is a man living off the success of a decade ago. His teams underachieve and melt down in critical spots. His critics note that he has won nothing without John Elway. That probably is unfair. Aside from Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells, just about every great coach needed a great signal caller to find success. However, this former 49ers assistant is definitely closer to George Seifert than Bill Walsh on the list of multiple Super Bowl winners.
Jay Cutler leads Denver's dynamic passing attack. He has emerged as the top quarterback from the 2006 Draft class almost by default. Denver's 273 passing yards per game rank 3rd in the league. He has 19 touchdown passes and a solid quarterback rating of 87. Expect plenty of Brett Favre comparisons because like Brett, Cutler has a huge arm and is not afraid to take chances. Although his numbers are great, Jay has yet to associate himself with the elites of the NFL. Perhaps this is getting too vague and general, but he has never been a big winner. The Broncos have underachieved early in his career. A mind-boggling loss to Oakland last week show the young quarterback's inconsistency. He has plenty of time to turn things around, but a great quarterback is judged by how he lifts his team, not his numbers. At this point, Cutler is only a standout in the second area.
He has a pair of terrific targets, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, both of whom have over 670 receiving yards. Brandon Stokely of Colts fame provides Denver with a capable route runner in the slot.
Denver's vaunted zone blocking scheme has produced another dynamic rushing attack. Even as the faces on the line and in the backfield have changed, the Broncos have consistently been able to run with great success through the years (The pass blocking has also been great as Denver has only surrendered 8 sacks). The scheme has turned mediocre backs like Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson into 1,000 yard rushers and talented backs like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis into rushing champions. Three runners with over 4 yards per run are out for the year with injuries. Denver has simply turned to a rookie running back from Arkansas, Darren Mc.....Felix Jon....Peyton Hillis? Yes, the fullback from Arkansas' vaunted rushing attack has taken a share of the carries recently and has run for 4.1 per carry and 3 touchdowns. Shifty Selvin Young from Texas has over 5 yards per carry. Denver has recently resigned former Bronco Tatum Bell because of their injuries. Bell was alway a guy who got a lot of hype, but he had little success after leaving Denver's line. The Broncos' line has received a big boost from rookie left tackle Ryan Clady, an athletic player, perfectly suited for zone blocking, a scheme which relies on athleticism. Clady has been a standout as a rookie.
While the Broncos have had offensive success, their defense has been an abomination. Even though they have one of the best corner duos in football in 'Dre Bly and Champ Bailey, they are 25th against the pass. Although Bailey has missed time recently due to injury and may not go on Sunday. A run defense surrendering 144.5 yards per game has been even worse, 27th in the league. The Broncos have been forced to deal with injuries to all three starting linebackers, D.J. Williams, Nate Webster, and Boss Bailey, which have slowed them down. Denver also has been beaten up in the trenches. Suffice it to say, landing Dewayne Robertson from the Jets has not fixed their issues. The Broncos seem to have a thing for acquiring first round bust defensive linemen to fill their holes. They acquired multiple players from Cleveland who fit the description a few years back. A new approach would probably be a good idea.
During the offseason, the Broncos inexplicably jettisoned perennially reliable Jason Elam in favor of Matt Prather. Prather has hit only 18 of 24 field goals with all misses from inside 50 yards. He does have an outstanding 18 touchbacks, however. Denver has a mediocre punter, Brett Kern, whose 47 yard average is masked by superhuman averages during his home games and very pedestrian results at sea level on the road. The Broncos do have a decent return game, led by the aforementioned Royal. Royal may not be a threat in the class of Leon Washington, but he is close. His average on kickoffs is over 30 yards, and he does have a 95 yard return.
Key Matchup: Calvin Pace vs. Ryan Clady
The Jets do not have the secondary depth to match up with Denver's receiving corps. That means they will have to rattle Cutler. This will be a battle of strengths, Denver's pass protection against New York's pass rush. Pace and Clady both have power and finesse games. This will be a fun battle to watch.
Keys to Victory:
1. Revis on an Island: The Jets have to leave Darrelle Revis alone with either Marshall or Royal. Ty Law has shown thus far that he still has excellent cover skills. What he lacks is confidence. When he knows he has safety help, he bodies up his man and has a lot of success. Without safety help, he leaves a cushion because he is afraid of getting beaten deep. Darrelle Revis has to be put on his own so that the Jets can give Law and the others in the secondary extra help.
2. Keep the Balance: The Jets have done everything well offensively in the past two weeks. Against Denver, weaknesses abound. If the Jets do not fall into a pattern with their play calling, the Broncos will have to guess and have a really tough time stopping New York.
3. Heads on a Swivel: Denver's zone blocking utilizes a lot of cut blocks. Jets in the trenches need to stay aware. The Broncos have damaged a number of knees through the years and been accused of dirty play.
4. Gameplan with Keller: Dustin Keller has come to life recently. Given Denver's linebacking issues, the Jets should emphasize his role in this contest.
Best Case Scenario:
The Jets come out in business like fashion. They pound Thomas Jones to demoralize the Broncos and keep Cutler off the field. The pass rush has a big day and gets into Cutler's head. Gang Green wins big.
Worst Case Scenario:
There is a major hangover effect coming off the two big wins. Denver is up for the game, and Cutler throws all over the field. Denver's opportunistic defense forces four turnovers in an upset.
What Will Happen:
The fans have spoken. Even though I jinxed Tennessee and New England by picking them, you have asked for an objective pick. As is obvious, I do not have a ton of respect for Denver. The team never plays to its talent level and would not be a Playoff contender this year in almost any other division in the league. With that said, this is a scary game due to the hangover effect and Denver's passing attack.
The Jets still have the edge in this one. Their run defense is the Broncos' worst nightmare. The zone blocking scheme is built upon quickly getting to defenders and using technique to drive them before they know what hit them. That will not work against Kris Jenkins. Jenkins is not just a space eater. He has one of the quickest first steps in football. Denver's center Casey Wiegmann is giving up over 60 pounds to Jenkins. The Broncos will need two men to occupy Kris, and his brute force is going to get a push up front. This will create one on one matchups for everybody else. The zone blocking scheme also attempts to get the linemen out to the second level. Jenkins' play will minimize this effect, but even if it does not, New York's linebackers like Calvin Pace, David Bowens, and David Harris, who may be back this week, are adept at shedding blockers. The Jets will force Denver's offense to be one-dimensional, which means they will get their share of stops. That will be enough to win because Gang Green will put up a lot of points with the way their offense and Denver's defense look.