Monday, December 27, 2010

Jets lose in shootout but clinch playoff berth

Just when the offense finally hits its stride, the defense self-destructs. In one of the most exciting and high-scoring games of the season, the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Jets 38-34 at Soldier Field.

Mark Sanchez played brilliantly for most of the game before throwing an interception on the Jets' final drive with under a minute to go. He finished 24-37 for 269 yards and a touchdown to go with that pick. It should have been two touchdowns, but Dustin Keller dropped an easy touchdown pass late in the 2nd quarter. The Jets ended up settling for a field goal, a point swing which ended up being big.

The Jets came out of both halves flat, with the Bears jumping on them early. Chicago scored the first 10 points, 7 of which were set up by a Santonio Holmes fumble. The Jets answered with a nice scoring drive, culminating in a Shonn Greene run. A minute and four seconds later, Dwight Lowery intercepted Dwight Lowery and returned it to the endzone to give the Jets a 14-10 lead. A LaDainian Tomlinson touchdown seven minutes later gave the Jets 21 unanswered points, and it looked like they were on their way.

Sanchez completed his first 9 passes, and Greene was running hard early, so it looked like the Jets would be able to score at will on the Bears. And they were. Only the Bears would score more.

The next drive, the pass rush that had been getting to Cutler for the first quarter and a half suddenly disappeared. And just like that, so did the Jets chances of winning. Cutler ran for a score on the Bears' next drive as they went right down the field on the Jets' defense.

Nick Folk added a field goal before the half, after Keller dropped a pass in the endzone. The 3rd quarter was all Chicago. After the Jets went three-and-out, Rex Ryan, Brian Schottenheimer, and Mike Westhoff opted for a fake punt that involved Sanchez lining up as the up-man. Brad Smith couldn't bring in the conversion, and the Jets turned the ball over at their own 40. Cutler found Johnny Knox burning Dwight Lowery for a touchdown on the very next play. The Jets again went three-and-out their next possession. This time, Steve Weatherford punted the ball to Devin Hester, who returned the punt 38 yards. Hester then scored three plays later on a deep ball from Cutler to give the Bears a touchdown lead.

But the Jets weren't done yet. The Jets marched 66 yards on four plays, with Sanchez finding a wide open Santonio Holmes in the endzone to tie the game. Unfortunately, the defense once again relented the lead right back. Buoyed by more great field position, Cutler brought the Bears 49 yards, with Knox scoring his second touchdown of the game.

The Jets then decided to slow the game down. Ryan did not feel his team was equipped for a shootout, so this time the Jets went on a longer drive, relying on short passes and runs. But the 12 play drive faltered in the red zone, setting up Folk's second field goal. The Jets caught a break with Bears kicker Robbie Gould missing a 35-yard field goal to keep the deficit at 4. Again, the Jets went on a 12 play drive, but the drive stalled at the 35-yardline, where the Jets punted. After forcing a three-and-out, the Jets got the ball back but couldn't get a first down of their own. Again, Weatherford punted, pinning the Bears at the 10. Matt Forte ran for one first down, killing the clock all the way down to 1:03 left before the Jets got the ball back. The Jets hopes were quickly dashed when Bears safety Chris Harris intercepted Sanchez on a deep ball down the sideline to end the game.

The sting from this game ended quickly with news that the Jets clinched a playoff spot anyway. But the defense's problems raise a number of red flags. Cutler accounted for four touchdowns, while Forte became the first back to rush over 100 yards all season against the Jets. Part of the problem was the Soldier Field turf, which caused horrible footing all day long for defenses reacting to offensive movements. That definitely didn't help. But that doesn't change the fact that for the second straight week, the opposing runningback broke a lot of tackles and was able to consistently move the chains.

And the pass rush was completely nonexistent after the first 20 minutes. Cutler was barely touched as he was able to wait for his speedy receivers to gain separation. It's no secret that a Mike Martz offense wants to throw the ball down the field, and Cutler was able to slice and dice the Jets' secondary all game long. He was sacked just twice in the game and barely hurried, despite coming into the game with a league-high 48 sacks.

Offensively, there was a lot to like. For the second straight week, Sanchez had time to throw and made the most of it. Keller, Holmes, and Braylon Edwards each had at least 69 yards. Keller and Holmes did have key miscues that hurt the offense, but they really can't take the blame for this loss. Shonn Greene also looked very good running the ball for 70 yards on just 12 carries. However, LaDainian Tomlinson continued to struggle, tallying just 28 yards on 13 carries. When the playoffs come, it's imperative the Jets give the ball more to Greene, who has clearly been the better runner as of late. He's also made strides in the passing game, enough so that it isn't obvious that when he's in the game, he's getting the carry.

The Jets had 393 yards to the Bears' 322. But not surprisingly, the turnover battle and special teams were the difference. Both teams converted early turnovers into touchdowns, but the Jets turning the ball over on downs in the 3rd quarter and interception on their last drive were both key moments in the game. Both teams pride themselves on strong special teams. However, while Weatherford had one of the prettiest coffin corners you will ever see late, the Bears outclassed the Jets in this regard. The Jets were scared to kick it deep to Devin Hester and Danieal Manning. And when they did kick it deep, they burned the Jets.

However, despite the problems in this game, the Jets have two weeks to get them straightened out before the playoffs. Gang Green is locked into the six seed, which likely means a trip to Kansas City or possibly Indianapolis or Jacksonville. Because of this, there's little chance Sanchez or a number of other starters that could use a rest will play next week. The week 17 home game against Buffalo is now meaningless except for record-keeping, so the Jets will probably work more on preparing for the playoffs than anything else.

Critics will call it backing into the playoffs, but the Jets all but clinched last week. Getting into the playoffs at 10-5 in week 16 is not backing into the playoffs, even if mathematically, the Jets clinched after a loss. Since the loss to Miami, it's been clear the Jets needed to win one of their last four games to make the playoffs, and that's just what they did last week against Pittsburgh. You can't back in when there is still another game on the schedule.

Still, Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine need to hit the film room hard and figure out just why the defense has gotten embarrassed two of the last four weeks. It's impossible to change personnel now, but the coaching staff needs to figure out some way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Because of that, and the Jets lack of playmakers at safety, the Jets struggle mightily to get interceptions. Moving Lowery to safety gets another ballhawk in the game, but he's limited, and good quarterbacks won't force bad throws when they have all day to throw.

All year, this team has shown flashes of everything. Sometimes, the run defense is elite. Sometimes, the pass defense looks tough to beat. Sometimes, the running game can consistently move the ball. Sometimes, the passing game clicks. Sometimes, special teams can make some big plays. But it's been impossible for all the units to click at the same time. Last week at Pittsburgh was close, but even then, the defense was one play away from losing that game and giving this season an entirely different feel. The Jets are what they are at this point, and that's a good team but one that lacks the consistency or identity to make a Super Bowl run. Things can change if the Jets can get some confidence in the playoffs and the right matchups. But if the Jets can't force Jay Cutler off his rhythm behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, it's hard to imagine them throwing Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or even Matt Cassel off his game in the postseason.


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