Thanksgiving Day was a fiasco. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. Five fumbles, including the infamous butt play, and an interception. A defense that couldn't stop the run or the pass. Special teams that were anything but special. A running game that couldn't convert in critical short yardage situations. Everybody saw it - it was a horror show, an epic fail. But... it was one game. It happens to almost every team. Maybe not in quite so embarrassing a fashion, but sooner or later it happens to almost every team. Even the great ones.
Take, for example, the 2010 Patriots. They finished 14-2 that year, yet they were embarrassed in a 34-14 blowout against arguably the worst team in football that year, the Cleveland Browns. They were also thoroughly thrashed by our own NY Jets in a 28-14 domination that year. In both losses the Pats turned the ball over 3 times. Even the great teams lay the occasional egg.
Not applicable, you say? We have no business comparing ourselves to a 14-2 Pats team you say? Those losses were not nearly so embarrassing you say? OK, fair enough. How about one more our speed? Let's take for example the 2009 Tennessee Titans. That team started the year 0-6. You think Thanksgiving was embarrassing? How does a 59-0 shellacking at the hands of the very same NE Patriots sound? How does a game where you turn the ball over 5 times and have a total of -7 passing yards sound? You read that right, NEGATIVE 7 passing yards for the game! How does completing as many passes to your opponent as you do to your own team sound? You think we were embarrassed on Thanksgiving? Compared to that 2009 Titans debacle, we were champions.
Now, try this thought experiment. You are the 2009 Tennessee Titans. You just suffered through that nightmare, which brought you to an 0-6 record. You are universally reviled as the worst team in football, the butt of every NFL joke. You've lost your last 3 games by a combined score of 127-26 (yikes!). What would your expectations be for the remainder of the season? What would you predict for a final record? OK, teams nearly always find a way to win 1 or 2 games, so what, maybe 2-14, outside shot of 3-13 if everything went just right?
Well, how does 8-8 sound? How does ripping off 5 straight wins immediately following that NE debacle sound? No, we are not the 2009 Titans. Things will not play out the same way. That is not the point. The point is, things always look bleaker than they really are after such a devastating loss. Had anyone predicted those Titans would win their next 5 games, behind Vince Young, of all people, the "experts" would have called them nuts. The Titans were far worse off than this year's Jets team, yet they managed a huge turnaround immediately following an even more embarrassing loss than the Thanksgiving Day Massacre.
Will the Jets follow the same script? Probably not. But it's possible, far more possible than virtually anyone currently gives the Jets credit for. Let's just look at some salient facts going into the final 5 games.
First, each of the next 5 games is against an opponent with a record as bad or worse than the Jets. This is by far the easiest stretch of the season. Now, it certainly can be argued that, just as the Jets look on their next 5 opponents as easy games, their opponents also look at the Jets as THEIR easy games. True enough, as far as it goes. But that analysis doesn't go far enough. The one thing not accounted for in that analysis is strength of schedule. And to date, the Jets have played the toughest schedule in the entire NFL. So while the Cards and Bills and Chargers have identical 4-7 record to the Jets, their 4-7 records were built on much easier schedules. In fact, of our remaining opponents, only San Diego and Buffalo are even in the top half of the league in terms of strength of schedule, while the Jets are #1, which means our remaining opponents have also been losing, but to much worse opposition than the Jets.
That brings us to our second point - how the Jets have fared against weaker opponents. Much has been made of the fact that the Jets have been unable to string together back to back wins. What hasn't been mentioned in this analysis is how difficult that task has been made by the NFL schedule makers this year. The Jets open with a win, then have to go to Pittsburgh. The Jets win game 3, then have to face SF, maybe the best team in football, followed by HOU, an early favorite for the AFC Super Bowl slot. The Jets beat a now 7-4 INDY team, then have to face the Pats, in NE. The Jets knock off STL, then once again have to face NE, coming off a short week, traveling back from STL. Which of those games should the Jets have been favored in? It's easy to kill the Jets for not stringing together some wins, but when you actually look at the schedule, the only game the Jets should have won and did not was the 2nd MIA game. The Jets have faced 7(!) teams that, if the season ended today, would be in the playoffs, and gone 1-6. Against all other teams the Jets are 3-1. The Jets have not lost a game this year to a team that currently has a record equal to or worse than the Jets record. Now, you can argue that great teams find a way to win, even against playoff opponents. That is true, to a point. But first, the Jets are not a great team - they just are not as bad as they are being made out to be. And second, even the best teams very often lose to playoff opponents. The Pats last year went to the Super Bowl, yet did not win a single game against a winning team. ALL teams feast against lesser opponents, and struggle against playoff teams. It has been the Jets misfortune thus far to play a ridiculous number of games against playoff teams. That misfortune is now at an end, and the Jets results should soon reflect that.
A final point that bears mentioning is Mark Sanchez's Jekyll and Hyde performances this year. Against top 10 pass defenses he has played horribly, much worse than he would be expected to play, even adjusting for the strength of opposing defenses. Against all other defenses he has played extremely well, compiling a QBR well in excess of 100, a level that, if he sustained it against all defenses, would make him an All Pro. 4 of the remaining 5 opponents have pass defenses in the bottom 12 in the league. Only Arizona presents a real challenge. Sanchez will probably struggle on Sunday against a good AZ pass defense, but the Cards are starting somebody worse than Sanchez, in rookie Ryan Lindley, against a roughly equivalent Jets pass defense. While we can expect Sanchez to struggle, it is likely Lindley will struggle even more. It will likely be an ugly game, but with the Cards losers of 7 straight, coming across the country, a 1-4 road team, and starting a rookie 6th round draft choice against an angry Rex Ryan defense, I would expect the Jets to come out on top in this one. From there, it's one bad pass defense after another, a situation Sanchez has feasted on so far this season. It is also one bad QB opponent after another, with Philip Rivers the only decent QB on the remaining schedule. And Rivers will be making the tough trip across the country, on a team that is imploding, having currently lost 6 of 7 and sporting wins this year only against the dregs of the league - KC, OAK, TN, and KC again.
Given the weakness of the Jets remaining schedule, how well Sanchez plays against below average pass defenses, how well the Jets have played against below average teams, and how difficult the Jets schedule so far has been, it is probably not a stretch to say the current level of woe-is-me pessimism surrounding this team is unwarranted. In fact, I believe the Jets should be favored in every remaining game on the schedule, and while 5-0 is probably too much to hope for, a 4-1 finish is not only not out of the question, it is fairly likely. That doesn't make the Jets a great team, or even a good team but it does make them a fair sight better than the current level of derision and ridicule give them credit for. It is easy to watch that one Sanchez play that will live in infamy and declare all is lost. But a more reasoned analysis says this team is not that bad, and they are not that good. They are somewhere in the vicinity of average, much less than we had hoped for at the beginning, but much more than we are giving then credit for here at the end.