FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Whether fate or luck or the Indianapolis Colts or the combination of the three handed it to them, the Jets have a massive opportunity this week.
I'm not talking about the chance to be the No. 5 seed in this year's AFC playoff field. Somebody gets the No. 5 seed every year, and this year's Jets, in spite of some strong foundational elements (top-ranked defense, top-ranked running game) that would give them confidence if they did get in, are probably too flawed to do anything historic with it.
No, this is bigger-picture stuff. This is about a first-year coach and a rookie quarterback and their effort and assignment to change the culture of the Jets. This is about the fact that, for maybe the first time in about 40 years, the Jets have had a break go their way, and taking advantage of it would be a big help for those who want people to stop saying "same old Jets."
December has always been about heartbreak for Jets fans, but what happened Sunday in Indianapolis was different. While the rest of the NFL howls about how silly, stupid and unfair was what the Colts did in pulling Peyton Manning and his fellow stars in the second half, the Jets and their fans whistle past the tipped-over cookie jar, a post-holiday treat stuffed furtively in their collective pocket. They'll take the gift, and they'll happily take another one this week if the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals decide they don't want to risk the health of their star offensive players against the Jets' tough, physical defense.
"They're going to make their decisions, just as the Colts did, on whatever's going to put them in the best position in the playoffs," Jets safety Jim Leonhard said Monday. "That's their right. We have a lot of our own things to take care of whether Carson (Palmer) is in there or not."
Exactly. It's not about the breaks you get; it's about what you do with them. It would be a classically Jet thing to do to lose this game Sunday. They're eight-point favorites against a team that is sputtering into the playoffs on its last whiff of gas. They'd be favored to beat the Bengals against next week, most likely, if they did win and earn the trip to play them again in Cincinnati. So if they were to lose this game and get eliminated as a result, that "Same Old Jets" chorus would ring out as loudly as ever.
But if they win? Oh, if they win, what a thing they'll have accomplished. Mark Sanchez's interceptions would all be forgiven. Rex Ryan's bluster and his poor math skills (remember, he announced after a Week 15 loss to Atlanta that his team had been eliminated) would be forgiven. The brutal losses to the Falcons, Jaguars, Bills, etc. would all be forgiven. The Jets would officially have something very positive to take out of this roller-coaster season. They'd have made the playoffs in a rebuilding year, in spite of the pitfalls that come with a rookie quarterback and a new coaching staff. They'd have pushed Eric Mangini, Brett Favre and last year's collapse back into a weird little corner of their history.
If the Jets take advantage of this chance they've been given and win Sunday, they'll have given Sanchez an invaluable learning tool - playoff-race experience and playoff-game experience in his very first year, unexpected but potentially crucial in terms of his development. Another week of practice, at least. A sense of what it feels like to play on the NFL's biggest stage.
And who knows? Other than Sanchez, they have a veteran team, a defense that can stop anybody and a running game that churns out yards with stunning consistency and effectiveness. Those things could make them a dangerous playoff team...if they can get in.
Yes, the Jets have a great big chance this week to do something very un-Jets-like. They can take advantage of a big break.