When the playoffs draw near, winning ugly trumps losing pretty. Few teams have embraced the concept tighter than the New York Jets.
Left for dead after a Tim Tebow-engineered loss at Denver on Nov. 17, the Jets have responded with consecutive defeats of Buffalo and Washington, both of whom they trailed in the fourth quarter before rallying for season-salvaging victories.
Another chance to keep hope alive comes Sunday at MetLife Stadium, where New York hosts the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Jets scored in the final minute to top the Bills, 28-24, two weeks ago at home. They then traveled to FedEx Field last week and outscored the Redskins by a 21-3 margin in the final eight minutes of a 34-19 win.
"We're a team that just wants to win and get in the playoffs and see what happens," New York head coach Rex Ryan said. "Our goal is intact, even though it looked really bad a few weeks ago."
At 7-5, the Jets are in a four-team logjam for the second of the AFC's two Wild Card spots and sit behind Cincinnati, Tennessee and Oakland in the race despite an identical record. New York lost on the Raiders' home field in Week 3 and trails the Bengals and Titans based on conference records.
Thus, the necessity of a win at home against a 5-7 AFC opponent.
New York won five of its final six games in 2009 to end at 9-7 before making a run to the AFC Championship Game. Last season, the Jets lost three of their last five contests in the regular season and finished at 11-5, but won at both Indianapolis and New England to again reach the conference title game.
Running back Shonn Greene gained 88 yards and scored three touchdowns against Washington, his best output since going for 112 against San Diego on Oct. 23. Meanwhile, Kansas City is 25th in the league against the run, allowing 130.3 yards per game.
"This team has plenty of confidence," Ryan said. "We don't lack for confidence, not one bit. We think we can beat any team in this league. Obviously, we've lost five games, so that's not always a fact, but we believe going into every single game that we're going to win.
"We're capable of beating anybody in this league. We just have to put it together."
On the Chiefs' side, New York will see a familiar face from its 2009 playoff run.
Kansas City running back Thomas Jones posted career-bests of 1,402 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns for the Jets that year before being released after the season. With the Chiefs, he's part of a crowded backfield in the absence of the injured Jamaal Charles and will face his former team for the first time since leaving.
In one career meeting with the Jets, Jones ran for 121 yards while with Chicago in 2006.
"I think the world of Thomas," Ryan said. "Just not this week."
The Chiefs have scored just 35 points since the start of November, only one more than the Jets had last week, but their defense has begun to pick up the slack. That was evidenced by a 10-3 defeat of Chicago, against whom Kansas City registered seven sacks and three interceptions to end a four-game skid last Sunday.
The Chiefs trail Denver and Oakland by two games in the AFC West with four left.
"We're coming on at the right time," Chiefs head coach Todd Haley said. "If we can figure out a way to win, pretty, ugly or indifferent, we have a chance."
Kansas City hosts Green Bay and Oakland before ending the season at Denver on Jan. 1.
"We know what happens if we lose," wide receiver Steve Breaston said. "We have to take one game at a time. I know everybody says that, but that's extremely important with the situation we're in."
The overall regular season series between the Chiefs and Jets is knotted at 16-16-1, with New York drawing even by virtue of home wins in the past two matchups. The Jets edged Kansas City by a 13-10 count in overtime in 2007, then followed up with a 28-24 decision at the Meadowlands the subsequent season. The Chiefs last bested New York via a 27-7 verdict at Arrowhead Stadium in 2005, and their most recent victory as the visitor in this set came by a 29-25 score on Oct. 6, 2002.
These two teams have also met twice in the postseason, with the Jets earning a 35-15 home triumph in a 1985 AFC opening-round clash and the Chiefs posting a 13-6 win in New York in a 1969 AFL Inter-Divisional Playoff.
Both Ryan and Haley, who spent six seasons with the Jets as both a scout and a wide receivers coach from 1995-2000, will be facing one another as well as their counterpart's respective teams for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko registered his first win as a starter last week and threw his first career touchdown pass in the victory over the Bears. Jones spent three seasons with the Jets from 2007-09 and totaled 3,833 rushing yards with 28 touchdowns on the ground, while fellow running back Dexter McCluster totaled 107 yards from scrimmage (61 rushing, 46 receiving) last week along with a 38-yard touchdown reception on a Hail Mary pass from Palko to close out the first half. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe had six catches for 102 yards in Kansas City's 2008 meeting with the Jets, while Breaston had nine receptions for 122 yards in his only career encounter with the New York, which came while with Arizona in 2008. Punt returner Javier Arenas leads the AFC and is third in the NFL with a 13.5 average.
On New York's defense, linebacker Aaron Maybin has three sacks and a forced fumble in his past two games and cornerback Kyle Wilson posted his second interception of the season last week. Inside linebacker David Harris and safety Eric Smith are tied for the team lead with 67 tackles apiece, while on the front line, rookie end Muhammad Wilkerson has 30 tackles and a sack.
Statistically speaking, Kansas City's offense is third-to-last in scoring (13.6 ppg), 27th in total yards (299.8 ypg), 30th in passing (179.2 ypg) and ninth in rushing (120.7 ypg). The Jets on defense are 16th in points allowed (21.7 ppg), seventh in yards allowed (317.5 ypg), seventh against the pass (204.6 ypg) and 15th against the run (112.9 ypg).
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
New York's Mark Sanchez is the fifth quarterback in the Super Bowl era to win at least 30 games (including playoffs) in his first three NFL seasons, joining Hall of Famer Dan Marino, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. In his past two games, Sanchez has completed 36-of-67 passes for 345 yards with five touchdowns, one interception and an 87.0 passer rating. He has a career-best 19 touchdown passes in 2011, and in the past two games has thrown for two touchdowns, zero interceptions and recorded a 127.7 rating in the fourth quarter. Greene tied a franchise record with three rushing touchdowns last week and needs just 28 rushing yards to surpass a career-best of 766 in 2010. For his career, running back LaDainian Tomlinson averages 92 rushing yards per game in December and has 13 career rushing scores against the Chiefs. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes aims for a third straight game with a touchdown catch this week, while kick returner Joe McKnight leads the NFL with a 32.4 average this season
For the Chiefs on defense, linebacker Derrick Johnson tied a career-high with two sacks in his only meeting with the Jets, which took place in 2008. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali needs two sacks to join Mike Bell, Neil Smith and Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas as the only players with double-digit sacks in back-to- back seasons in Chiefs history, while rookie counterpart Justin Houston had a career-best three sacks last week. Cornerback Brandon Carr has a career-best three interceptions in 2011 while Arenas, who also serves as the team's nickel defender, registered his first career interception against Chicago. Up front, fourth-year end Glenn Dorsey has 41 tackles on the season.
By the numbers, the Jets are ninth in scoring (24.2 ppg), 26th in total yards (310.8 ypg), 20th in passing (210.3 ypg) and 24th in rushing (100.4 ypg). On defense, Kansas City is 18th in points allowed (22.3 ypg), 16th in yards allowed (344.2 ypg), 12th against the pass (213.8 ypg) and 25th against the run (130.3 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The fate of a resurgent Greene against the Chiefs' 25th-ranked run defense will play a large role in both the composition and the result of this game.
The inexperienced Palko will surely be a target of a Jets defense that's established a reputation for confusing passers with exotic coverage and rush packages. How he handles his assignment will be critical to Kansas City's success.
Teams with multiple weapons like Kansas City, which has a good pass-catcher out of the backfield in McCluster and two strong options at wide receiver in Bowe and Breaston, have been a trying task for New York in past matchups. The Jets will have to be up to the challenge.
The opponents change but the storylines don't when December arrives for the Jets, who've been accustomed to fighting for playoff spots since Ryan arrived on the sideline. Though the 2011 team seems to have regressed a bit from last year's edition, New York figures to be good enough to exploit a suspect Kansas City offense with a novice quarterback on its own home field. Successfully, if not artistically.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 23, Chiefs 20