FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Those big, bold playoff predictions from Rex Ryan and the New York Jets are a thing of the past.
Ryan’s swagger made for plenty of headlines during his first three seasons in New York. Now, it’s what the coach doesn’t say that raises some eyebrows.
“I’m not going to guarantee a playoff spot,” a toned-down Ryan said Monday. “I think part of that is, look, the fact that we’re one game under .500, I think you’re probably not in the playoff conversation.”
The only thing is, the Jets suddenly very much are. New York (6-7) is a game behind Pittsburgh and Cincinnati — both 7-6 — for the final playoff spot in the AFC with three games remaining. Not that they’re talking about it.
“Our next ‘playoff’ game is Tennessee,” defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson said. “All we can focus on is the next game. We can’t worry about any playoff pictures. We’ve just got to worry about our next opponent, and that’s Tennessee on Monday night.”
The Jets have won two straight since being routed 49-19 by New England on Thanksgiving night, a loss that appeared to have the potential to derail the season and send New York into an offseason of uncertainty.
Instead, things are looking up for the Jets, who have put themselves right in the playoff mix despite having a sluggish offense and a struggling starting quarterback in Mark Sanchez. They must win each of their remaining games, a scenario that isn’t so unrealistic, given that Tennessee (4-9), San Diego (5-8) and Buffalo (5-8) all have losing records.
“We just need to keep our head down and keep winning games,” Ryan said. “We know the only way we can affect it is to win our games and then we’ll see what somebody tells us.”
That’s a far cry from the guy who once declared that the Jets would meet President Obama after winning the Super Bowl or writing “Soon To Be Champs!” on the outside of an ESPN bus during training camp.
This is the new and maybe more realistic Ryan, who earlier this season acknowledged that his previous declarations put more pressure on his players than he imagined. He’s also aware that his team has not looked much like a playoff team in their two most recent victories: pulling out a 7-6 win over Arizona last week after pulling Sanchez in favor of third-stringer Greg McElroy, and then making just enough plays Sunday to beat Jacksonville 17-10 despite the Jaguars being ranked second-to-last in the league in offense and defense.
“We are where we are,” safety Yeremiah Bell said. “We’re 6-7 and we’ve still got some work to do. We’re not looking ahead at anything. We’re just taking it game by game and we’ll see what happens at the end.”
That was the running theme in a low-key locker room, once considered one of the league’s chattiest.
“The most important game is the one that we can control,” nose tackle Sione Po’uha said, “and that’s coming up this week.”
“I don’t do well when I start thinking ahead,” defensive end Mike DeVito said. “The focus is on Tennessee.”
Get the picture?
The Jets don’t control their own destiny, either. Even if they win out and finish 9-7, they’ll need help elsewhere to get into the postseason. The Steelers are basically two games up because of a 27-10 win in Week 2, which means New York likely needs Pittsburgh to lose two of their last three against Dallas (7-6), Cincinnati (7-6) and Cleveland (5-8). The Bengals have Philadelphia (4-9), the Steelers and Baltimore (9-4) left.
In what would appear to be an unrealistic scenario, New York could also surpass Indianapolis (9-4) for a playoff spot if the Colts lose their last three, including two games against Houston sandwiched around one against Kansas City. The Jets beat the Colts 35-9 earlier this season.
“I have no idea about all that business,” center Nick Mangold said. “I just know that we’ve got Tennessee coming up and it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
The Jets certainly haven’t made it easy on themselves the past two weeks. Despite facing a third-string quarterback in Ryan Lindley on a slumping Cardinals offense last week, the Jets needed McElroy to come in and save the season with the game’s only touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
That set off a few days of debates about whether Sanchez should remain on the sideline in favor of McElroy. Ryan, however, decided to stick with Sanchez against Jacksonville.
Sanchez did little to quiet the critics Sunday, going 12 of 19 for 111 yards and losing a fumble. But the Jets went heavy with the run game, as Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell combined for 155 yards rushing. Still, there’s no question who the quarterback will be this week.
“I think it’s Al Woodall this week,” Ryan joked, referring to the former Jets quarterback in the early 1970s. “Nah, we’ll go with Mark.”
The defense was also solid for the second straight week, holding the Jaguars to 2 for 16 on third-down opportunities, making opponents 2 for 31 in those situations against the Jets the last two games. After the loss to New England, New York was ranked 19th in overall defense. Two weeks later, the Jets are eighth — just three spots out of the top 5, where they have finished in each of Ryan’s first three seasons.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, one loss, it’s the end of the world and one win, they’re going to win everything,” DeVito said. “It’s kind of the way the atmosphere is around here. You have to recognize that and realize that the worst thing you can do is when things like that are happening is to pack it in and really believe that either way. You just have to continue each week to be consistent and get better.”
NOTES: LB Bryan Thomas has a strained pectoral muscle and is day to day, while an MRI exam revealed that WR Stephen Hill has a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. The team will know more about his availability later in the week, but it is believed he will not need surgery. Ryan said defensive back Aaron Berry has a hamstring issue. … Ryan told 98.7 ESPN New York that he would have played Tim Tebow in front of his hometown fans in Jacksonville if the game had been a blowout, but would have had him only hand off the ball. Tebow was active, but didn’t play for the third straight game while dealing with two broken ribs. Ryan was also asked if he thought Tebow might be disappointed he came to the Jets given the circumstances. “That’s probably a true statement,” he said. “As a competitor, you want to have success, you want to have probably more opportunities and the fact that we’re one game below .500, so we haven’t had success as a team I’m sure he was anticipating. But, again, I think he’s happy to be a Jet. I truly believe that.”
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.