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With hot seat cooled off, Rex Ryan doing best coaching job yet with Jets in playoff mix

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    New York Jets quarterback Geno Smith (7) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)The Associated Press

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    New York Jets' Antonio Cromartie (31) celebrates after an interception during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)The Associated Press

Raise your hand if, before the season, you had the New York Jets sitting at 5-4 and holding a playoff spot in the AFC after nine games.

Yeah, right. Sure you did.

OK, other than Rex Ryan.

Gloom and doom was predicted even by some of the most optimistic Jets fans, but the coaching job Ryan has done could be considered among the finest in the league so far. Right up there with Kansas City's Andy Reid, Carolina's Ron Rivera and New England's Bill Belichick.

"We're not worried about making statements to anybody," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "Honestly, we're worried about ourselves and what we can do as a team. We believe in every single guy that's in here. We understand that if we play up to our standards and up to our abilities, we can go far with this team."

It all starts with Ryan, who has made quite a rebound.

After failing to make the playoffs for the second straight year, the Jets fired general manager Mike Tannenbaum last December but owner Woody Johnson opted to keep Ryan. It seemed a curious and unconventional move, especially knowing that new GM John Idzik would have to start his tenure with a coach he didn't pick.

The fact the two seem to have opposite personalities — the brash Ryan and the reserved Idzik — made for an unlikely union. And one that seemed destined to be short-term only.

But, of course, that was then.

"If you've learned something about me, I don't operate on any preconceived notions," Idzik said. "You try to take that into every aspect of what we do, that we stay in the moment. We live in the moment. We practice in the moment. We play in the moment. So you don't go in believing a certain way. You let things transpire and you've heard me say this a number of times: you let things play out."

For now, the hot seat under Ryan has cooled off entirely. The calls for his job have turned to cries for a contract extension.

Ryan has evolved from his days of having the NFL's biggest mouth among coaches to a more tuned-down version. You won't get the headline-grabbing guarantees anymore, but the confidence peeks through every now and then.

"It's been a joy to work with Rex," Idzik said.

With Ryan's ability to mesh with Idzik, strengthen New York's defense despite seeing his best player in Darrelle Revis traded during the offseason and maneuvering around up-and-down rookie quarterback Geno Smith and various injuries on offense, he's got the Jets focused on a second-half playoff push.

"Our job is incomplete," Ryan said. "We have a long way to go."

Ryan has one year left on his deal, but if he and Idzik continue to build on their relationship, the coach will be back.

No matter how improbable that seemed a few months ago.

"It's just full speed ahead," Ryan said.

Ryan's defense has been nearly as good as advertised, ranking seventh in the league overall and first against the run, bolstered by a young, athletic defensive line. Muhammad Wilkerson has firmly established himself as one of the league's top defensive linemen, and rookie Sheldon Richardson has made an impact since his first game.

Perhaps the best move the Jets made in the offseason was hiring Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator. He has allowed Ryan to focus even more on the defense, knowing that the offense is in the hands of one of the NFL's top gurus.

"When you look at, I don't know how many offensive coordinators have done a better job than Marty Mornhinweg," Ryan said.

Mornhinweg has kept the offense competitive despite having to deal with injuries to Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley, Mike Goodson and Jeff Cumberland, and the four-game suspension of Kellen Winslow Jr. Bringing a rookie quarterback along in Smith has also been a challenge, especially with his roller-coaster first nine games.

Smith has led four winning drives this season in the fourth quarter overtime, looking every bit like a franchise quarterback. But in other games, he has been mistake- and turnover-prone, something that needs to improve if the Jets are going to be serious playoff contenders.

"We try not to put the emphasis on one single thing because at this point in my career every single thing needs to get better," said Smith, who has eight touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. "So, we focus on every single thing — small things, big things — and just trying to get better day by day."

Just as his coach has done.

"I think we're pleased with the way our guys have come together," Idzik said. "We've got a real cohesive team here, and by team, I mean our staff, our players. We care about each other. We fight for each other. We have each other's backs. You feel that in this building."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org