The New York Jets have been one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season's first half — even if the coaches and players insist they expected this type of start.
Robert Saleh's squad is 6-3, won five of its last six games and sent a message that the Jets are for real. But now they're facing another tough, and perhaps ill-timed, opponent: the bye-week break.
“I’ve seen players that ... went into a bye week and absolutely destroyed their entire season," Saleh said, "because they went to a beach and drank beer and ate nachos for an entire week and came back 10 pounds heavier and destroyed their entire back half of the season.”
With Giants safety Xavier McKinney's off-road accident in Mexico last week serving as a reminder, Saleh emphasized to his players that this isn't time for vacation. They can take a breather physically and mentally, but the focus must remain on the task at hand.
“When we come back, we've got eight very good games to play," linebacker C.J. Mosley said, "and it can make or break our season.
Snapping the NFL's longest active postseason drought at 11 seasons is a very realistic possibility. Speculating about draft position in early November has been replaced by daydreaming about playoff seeding.
New York is currently fifth in the AFC, but just a half-game behind division-leading Buffalo after a stunning 20-17 victory over the Bills last Sunday.
“It shows we obviously don’t care what anybody else says,” quarterback Zach Wilson said.
Their refreshing swagger and confidence won't let them.
“We’re not the same old Jets,” defensive end Bryce Huff insisted. “We’ve got a group of guys here that love to work. We show up to work every day with the same mindset: just get better and go 1-0 on Sunday.”
The formula for success has been clear: Let their stingy, aggressive defense knock people around while a run-heavy offense wears down opponents and drains the clock.
It's an approach — and identity — that resembles what worked so well for the Rex Ryan-led Jets the last time the franchise made the playoffs, during the 2010 season.
And for this group, it has been on display most of the last several games, including last Sunday when New York shut down Josh Allen and took control on the winning drive by running all over the Bills.
“It’s been a long time since they’ve had success like that,” Bills pass rusher Von Miller said. “Hats off to those guys, man. Taking a step back from (being a) player on the Buffalo Bills and this defense, the Jets did a great job (Sunday). ...
“They’ve built up a great team.”
Miller singled out cornerback Sauce Gardner, a front-runner for AP Defensive Rookie of the Year who already is establishing himself as one of the NFL's best at his position, and defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who's the leader of a pass-rushing, run-stuffing front that has helped the Jets rank No. 7 in overall defense.
“Guys are making plays, guys are flying around and if we’re not No. 1, that’s the goal,” defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers said. “It’s to be No. 1. So we’re going to keep playing, we’re going to keep dominating other teams and hopefully it plays out.”
Wilson's development after a down-and-up rookie year was the primary focus entering the season. That was put on hold for the first three games while the quarterback recovered from a preseason knee injury. Since then, the Jets are 5-1 with Wilson under center.
The loss — against New England two weeks ago — came when Wilson tried doing too much and got sloppy with the football, throwing three interceptions.
He was picked off twice in his season debut at Pittsburgh, when he led New York to a fourth-quarter comeback victory. But in the other four games, Wilson had no interceptions. And the Jets have been a run-heavy offense with Wilson playing smarter and taking fewer chances.
Last year's No. 2 overall draft pick still has plenty to improve, but offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is designing game plans that accentuate the strengths of both Wilson and the playmakers around him.
“When I see how well the run game is going,” Wilson said, “I’m just going to keep feeding them until something changes.”
The ground game took a hit three weeks ago when rookie Breece Hall was lost for the season with a torn ACL. But general manager Joe Douglas moved quickly to acquire James Robinson from Jacksonville. Last Sunday, Robinson and Michael Carter were the keys on offense, particularly on the winning drive.
After the Jets got the ball at their 4 with 7:53 remaining and tied at 17 with Buffalo, they ran on the first eight plays to gain 73 yards.
Ground and pound, and pound some more.
And then Wilson threw his first pass on the drive: a 12-yard completion to Denzel Mims on third-and-5 to get to the Bills 6. Greg Zuerlein's 28-yard field goal came four plays later and ended up being the winning points.
After the defense stifled Allen and the Bills one final time.
“Running the ball and imposing our will on them (in the) fourth quarter,” Saleh said. “Couldn’t be more proud of the fight, especially offensively and defensively. Just the absolute grind and strain to finish 60 minutes.”
All according to plan.
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