(SportsNetwork.com) - The Era of Good Feeling has returned to the swamps of Jersey.
OK, perhaps it's not quite that good. But the New York Jets are certainly more buoyant heading into a Week 15 visit to the Carolina Panthers than they'd been at any point prior to last weeks 10-point defeat of the Oakland Raiders, which snapped an untimely three-game skid.
Though they'd been expected to be among the NFL's bottom feeders at the season's outset, the Jets were 5-4 and coming off a stunning defeat of New Orleans when they headed into the bye in Week 10 - visions of playoff positioning dancing in their heads.
The three weeks following the break were more Grinch than glory, however - yielding double-digit losses at Buffalo, at Baltimore and home with Miami - and left New York is serious catch-up mode if a postseason berth is still anywhere on the holiday wish list.
"Every game's a playoff game for us," defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said. "That's how we have to look at it."
At 6-7, the Jets are tied with San Diego and sit a game behind both Baltimore (which currently holds the final wild card spot) and Miami at 7-6. New York is essentially in ninth place in the conference at this point because it would lose a tiebreaker to the Chargers based on conference record - San Diego is 3-5 against AFC foes, the Jets are 3-7.
Not to mention, the offense has been middling at best. New York is 31st in the league in scoring - 17.4 points per game - and has managed just 13.2 points per week in six road games.
None of that was enough to dissuade rookie QB Geno Smith, however.
"The spirits are higher, but for me it's the same work week," Smith said. "Throughout the game (against Oakland), I was just playing freely.It goes back to not thinking about all my past mistakes. I think I kind of got into this zone where I just tried to be way too perfect and that's almost impossible to do at any level, especially as a rookie.
"There were times where I was so caught up in running the play and executing it to perfection that I didn't allow my natural ability to take over at times."
The West Virginia product completed 16-of-25 passes for a touchdown and 219 yards against the Raiders and ran for a TD while compiling 50 yards in five runs. In the previous five games, he'd had no TD passes, eight interceptions and a 47.1 percent completion rate.
His legs, coach Rex Ryan said, could be weapons against the Panthers, who possess a dynamic quarterback of their own in Cam Newton.
"Anytime you talk about putting a defense on their heels, when you're throwing it and now all of a sudden you take off with it, it presents a lot to a defense," Ryan said. "Obviously, with this kid we're getting ready to play, Cam Newton is a big, fast kid back there. He's got a great arm too. That's going to present problems."
The Jets allowed 150 yards on the ground last week, not exactly a recipe for success with Newton and Co.
"Normally, a big strength of ours is our gap integrity in the run," Ryan said. "Obviously, we had a couple of issues in that, so clearly moving forward that has to be a strength, not a weakness."
While New York will try to work on optimism, the Panthers are reeling from perhaps getting too giddy, too soon.
Carolina saw an eight-game win streak snapped on Sunday night in New Orleans and has suddenly gone from league-wide flavor of the month to just another team battling to secure a playoff spot.
The Panthers enter the week in possession of the NFC's fifth playoff position, though they're tied at 9-4 with existing sixth seed San Francisco and hold just a one-game lead over current No. 7 wannabe Arizona at 8-5. They're also a game behind New Orleans in the chase for the NFC South title and will host the Saints next weekend in Charlotte.
"We did get a little ahead of ourselves as far as feeling good," defensive end Greg Hardy said.
"It happens to the best of us. When you get something that you really deserve it gives you a great feeling and you get kind of comfortable in a sense - not really complacent or content, but kind of comfortable. I feel like that is where we were for a second and we learned our lesson. We got our hand burned."
A playoff berth could be clinched with a victory, alongside losses by the 49ers and Cardinals, along with ties or losses by either Dallas or Philadelphia. In terms of the division, the Saints are at St. Louis this week and will finish at Carolina and then home with Tampa Bay.
Carolina faces the Jets, New Orleans and Atlanta to wrap up 2013.
"There is a lot on the line this week," coach Ron Rivera said.
Newton was 22-of-34 for 160 yards and was sacked five times at New Orleans. In five straight victories at home, he has a 100.2 passer rating with a 65.2 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Not to mention 223 rushing yards and three TDs.
New York is just 24th in the league defending the pass - while second against the run - and could be without cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who's still bouncing back from a concussion suffered against the Raiders.
"It's a great opportunity to go out and really prove to ourselves who we are," Newton said.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Good Geno or Bad Geno.
Many teams rise or fall based on the quarterback's play, but the Jets are specifically illustrative of the concept.
The Jets are unbeaten - 4-0, as a matter of fact - when their rookie passer turns in a QB rating of 80 or better. In the nine games in which it hasn't happened, they're 2-7.
The Panthers have thrived - and, elsewhere, the Jets have struggled - when there is significant production from the tight end position.
For Carolina's Greg Olsen is not only good at the nuts and bolts of the position, but he's athletic enough to create issues for linebackers who cover him. Olsen has scored a touchdown in four of his last seven games overall and has six TDs in his last seven games against AFC opposition.
The Jets are coming in after a slump-ending win. The Panthers arrive following a streak-finishing loss.
Given those differences in momentum, some would suggest New York has a real chance at an upset. Don't believe it. The Panthers' defense, among the very best in the league when it comes to limiting scoring, will be in its element against a QB who's taken inconsistency to a new level since a hot start. Throw in some Cam Newton on a home field and it's "uh oh, Rex."
Sports Network predicted outcome: Panthers 20, Jets 6