“No one should come to New York to live,” wrote E.B. White, “unless he is willing to be lucky.”
For forty years, a long sequence of Jets coaches has been willing, but only Rex Ryan has managed to pull it off.
This is no small feat. The epithet “Same Old Jets” stems from the team’s habit of finding defeat in novel and creative ways: a fake spike here, a coach for a day there, with plenty of time for conspiracy theories and the occasional paranoid rant.
Big Rex will take his lucky Jets into Indianapolis next Sunday after upsetting the San Diego Chargers 17-14 in the only watchable game of the NFL’s divisional round.
(Every year we come away from the wild card weekend impressed with the showing of teams that will be ground to dust by the rested, higher-seeded teams playing at home a week later. This year’s slate looked especially promising, and gave us two 31-point victories, two teams managing just a field goal each, and not a moment of suspense or interest until the fourth and final game in San Diego. Most embarrassing was the tide of predictions that Dallas would roll over Minnesota, a forecast that was true in every particular until it added the word “Minnesota.”)
Ryan pulled the rare double of declaring his team the Super Bowl favorites two weeks after saying they were out of the playoff picture. The Jets came roaring into the playoffs, winning three of their last four to earn the fifth seed. Those three wins were against 1-11 Tampa Bay, one half of the Indianapolis Colts, and about a quarter’s worth of the Cincinnati Bengals (I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a unit of time or money).
Lucky? Yes, thank you, Mr. NFL schedule-maker.
In their first-round playoff matchup against those same Bengals, the Jets clearly outplayed Cincinnati, running the ball effectively and harassing Carson Palmer into an epically bad performance in which he averaged just 3.1 yards per pass play on thirty-six attempts. Things would not be so easy against San Diego, and Philip Rivers.
In the first half, it was the Chargers who were the power team, stuffing the Jets’ running game and holding them without a first down in the first twenty-one minutes of the game. New York’s game plan centered on not letting the quarterback beat them – their own quarterback, that is. Mark Sanchez completed just four pass plays for more than ten yards, throwing most of his passes as either dump-offs or within five yards of the line of scrimmage. He was 6-for-14 at halftime, the Jets picking up 60 yards through the air and trailing 7-0.
After an early second-half field goal cut it to 7-3, Sanchez threw his first playoff interception, setting up the Chargers on the Jets’ 38. Three plays later, Rivers went deep to Vincent Jackson, covered closely by Darrelle Revis; Jackson got his hands on the ball but lost it, only to have it hit the back of his foot and ricochet towards the defender. Revis, lying on his side, snatched it from beside his own thigh for the easiest interception of his career, giving the Jets the ball back.
Lucky? Yes, and the turnover set up the key mistake of the game.
After a punt stuck San Diego inside its own five yard line, Rivers threw another odd interception, the ball going directly to safety Jim Leonhard as tight end Antonio Gates ran beside him not even looking for a pass. More luck? Perhaps, though this time it was the kind of luck that follows from pressure on the quarterback. A personal foul on the play gave the Jets possession on the San Diego seven, and Sanchez completed a two-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Keller on third down for New York’s first lead.
On the next Jets possession, rookie Shonn Greene took a handoff and burst through the line, sprinting away 53 yards for the score that put New York up 17-7. (Greene, who has been a revelation in the playoffs with his power and speed, earned playing time only after the Jets lost Leon Washington in the seventh game of the season. More luck – bad – that turned out for the best.) It might have been a one-score game, but kicker Nate Kaeding, who had made sixty-nine consecutive field goals from inside 40 yards, missed from 36 in the first quarter. Now, with the Chargers moving briskly into field-goal range and just under five minutes to play, Kaeding lined up a 40-yarder and missed it right.
Lucky, for sure.
San Diego got the ball back with 3:36 to play; a minute-twenty later, it was 17-14. The Jets recovered the onside kick, gained nine yards on three running plays, then faced fourth and one on the Chargers’ 29 with 1:09 to go. Rather than try a field goal, Ryan went for it, and Thomas Jones picked up two yards to seal the victory.
The Jets will need all that luck and more against Indianapolis. Ryan’s first season is a big success, but he’ll likely find all that the horseshoes next week are on the side of the Colts’ helmets.