Flawed Jets can still sniff playoffs

When John Madden was an NFL color analyst, he frequently used to say that winning was a great deodorant.

The former Oakland Raiders coach meant that sometimes when teams won games, the victories at least temporarily masked their deficiencies.

So we have the case of the 2012 New York Jets. Their unimpressive 7-6 victory Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals raised their record to a less-than-mediocre 5-7, yet kept alive their fledgling playoff hopes.

After months of speculation that a controversy between Mark Sanchez and first- year Jets' quarterback Tim Tebow would materialize, it never did. However, an ineffective Sanchez was pulled in the third quarter against the Cardinals in favor of Greg McElroy, who led the Jets on their game-winning drive.

The uncertainty at quarterback (head coach Rex Ryan declined Monday to name a starter for this Sunday's contest at Jacksonville) makes the Jets look like anything but a contender, however it's not as far-fetched as it may seem at first glance.

Considering that the Jets' final four opponents (Jacksonville, Tennessee, San Diego and Buffalo) all have losing records, it's possible for New York to remain in contention until the final day of the season.

While qualifying for the postseason should generally be the goal of all NFL teams, arguably the worst thing that can happen to the Jets' organization would be a five-game winning streak to close the regular season.

Sure, the 9-7 record would be a one-game improvement over last season. Yes, it would give the Jets a shot at gaining the No. 6 seed into the AFC playoffs. What it would mostly do, however, is provide a temporary application of deodorant that could end up canceling - or at least delaying - the rebuilding process the Jets sorely need to begin.

It wasn't all that long ago that the Jets appeared on the verge of a Super Bowl. They made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, even doing so with a 9-7 record in 2009.

So, why can't the Jets make similar magic happen with another 9-7 finish this year? It's simple: They just aren't as good a team as they were back then. They've yet to win two consecutive games.

Much of the lineup is the same, but aging linebackers Calvin Pace, Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas have lost a step or two. A season-ending injury to all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis has prevented the Jets' defense from gambling with the kinds of blitzes Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine routinely dialed up in previous seasons. The result has been a virtually non-existent pass rush.

New York still prefers the kind of Ground and Pound attack it featured in 2009 and 2010, but the '09 team had a dependable veteran running back in Thomas Jones. The '10 squad had a solid replacement for Jones in LaDainian Tomlinson.

When Tomlinson retired after last season, he was not adequately replaced. Neither was elite blocking fullback Tony Richardson, whose retirement prior to the 2011 season left a leadership void, as well.

New York's offensive line play, despite the presence of Pro Bowl fixtures Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, has deteriorated. The retirement of right tackle Damien Woody has turned that position into a turnstile. Former second- round draft pick Vladimir Ducasse has been more of a project than expected, unable to crack the starting lineup in three seasons.

Sanchez, the oft-criticized quarterback, was at his best in the playoffs during his first two seasons, winning four postseason road games and playing effectively in two AFC title game losses.

The perception is that Sanchez has regressed substantially since then. Two things for certain are that his protection has worsened and his receivers are less polished. Still, the erratic Sanchez hasn't taken the kind of step forward that the franchise had expected, and he hasn't shown the ability to make players around him better. Now he might even lose his job to McElroy, a former seventh-round draft pick.

Compared to the Jets' playoff teams in 2009 and 2010, this Jets team is inferior in every phase. In fact, the 2012 Jets rank near the bottom of the NFL in passing offense, total offense, rushing defense and pass rush.

A wild-card berth into the playoffs would put the Jets on the road for a first- round game against an AFC divisional champion (New England, Baltimore, Houston or Denver). What are New York's chances of beating any of those teams?

Here's a hint: The Jets are 1-6 against teams that are currently .500 or better. They've been outscored 179-114 in those games. Take away a 35-9 win over Indianapolis, and the Jets have been outscored 170-79 in the six losses to contending teams. Three of the defeats - the ones to San Francisco, Seattle and the home loss to New England - have been by a combined 85 points.

Rather than staying the course and being a fringe contender, the Jets would benefit from a makeover. They have some good things to build around. If Revis returns to form from his torn ACL next season, he will combine with Antonio Cromartie to give the Jets' the top cornerback tandem in the league.

Also, recent drafts have given New York potentially solid defensive linemen like Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Kendrick Ellis. Mangold and Ferguson could still be excellent building blocks for the offensive line. If he returns from a foot injury that has sidelined him most of this year, Santonio Holmes will again give the Jets a legitimate playmaker at wide receiver.

Inside linebacker David Harris isn't worth the $10.9 million salary the Jets would owe him next season, but he's a solid player. Demario Davis, a third- round draft pick this year, will be the heir apparent to Scott at the other inside linebacker spot.

However, the Jets are in desperate need of a pass rushing outside linebacker, with Pace and Thomas likely on their way out. They could also use youth at safety, and they clearly need playmakers and offensive line reinforcements.

Since Sanchez is guaranteed $8.25 million next year, he will almost surely be back. Still, it would behoove the Jets to look for his successor. If a legitimate competitor for Sanchez's job (and, no, that doesn't mean McElroy or Tebow) pushes him to finally reach his potential, then it's a win-win for the Jets. It would be foolishly optimistic, however, to ignore the position this offseason and just hope that Sanchez figures it out.

With so many holes to fill, the best-case scenario for the Jets' long-term success would be a high draft pick in April. Georgia's Jarvis Jones looks like he'd be the perfect replacement for Pace, but Jones is probably going to come off the board in the top three picks. The Jets won't be drafting that high.

If the Jets run the table and sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, needed rebuilding will be put on hold. Worse yet, the "deodorant" might falsely give the Jets' front office the idea that they are still a win-now team that just needs a couple of roster tweaks to finally experience its Super Bowl dreams.

If New York somehow sneaks into the playoffs, it would draft no higher than No. 21.

Realistically, the Jets' biggest obstacle to reaching the playoffs will be their need to run the table. Even though none of their final four games are daunting, the Jets' mistake-prone, inconsistent play makes it difficult to envision them finishing the regular season with a five-game winning streak.

However, let's say that they do win out and end up 9-7. In that scenario, their projected win over Buffalo would guarantee the Bills at least eight losses.

The Miami Dolphins are 5-7, but they have road games against San Francisco and New England on their remaining schedule. At least eight losses are likely.

The Cincinnati Bengals are 7-5. If they lose their final two games (at Pittsburgh and home against Baltimore), that would give the Jets a tiebreaker edge over them on the basis of better conference record.

The Indianapolis Colts are in the driver's seat for a wild card at 8-4. Still, they have both meetings with Houston still on the schedule. If the Colts end up 9-7 -- which would require an additional loss to either Tennessee or Kansas City -- the Jets would beat them in a tiebreaker by virtue of a head-to-head win.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 7-5, with the return of Ben Roethlisberger still up in the air. Provided they finish at least 9-7, they'd win a tiebreaker over the Jets because of their head-to-head win in Week 2. Then again, New York could still make the playoffs along with Pittsburgh, provided the Jets go 9-7 and knock out Miami, Cincinnati and Indianapolis in the tiebreakers mapped out above.

Hey, if you're a Jets fan, you're in a quandary. Watching your team bounce back from a 4-7 record to get to the postseason would be a considerable achievement. It would be kind of interesting to see a team that has been this year's media whipping boy get the last laugh.

On the other hand, a Jets postseason run would figure to be a one-and-done situation. Worse yet, it could prevent the franchise from making the wholesale changes it needs to have a chance to become a legitimate championship contender in the future.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sports writer since 1985.