The Jets begin a critical two-game stretch by facing the eternal elixir for teams coming off a heartbreaking defeat: Smokin’ Jay.
Oh, sure, Jay Cutler hasn’t exactly been a train wreck, but the Dolphins’ newly clean-shaven 30-something gunslinger still looks he’d rather be on the couch watching Laguna Beach re-runs with his wife than playing professional football.
Todd Bowles’ sack-averse team might actually cure their woes by laying a finger or two — or three! — on Miami’s quarterback in a pivotal road game for Gang Green Sunday during their tanks-but-no-tanks season.
The 3-3 Jets, hosed by replay officials last week, cannot afford to let one controversial loss mushroom into a full-fledged skid with two games left in the first half of the season.
A sweep over the Dolphins and victory over the reigning (but thoroughly unimpressive) NFC champion Falcons would put the Jets in prime position at the midway point to make a — gasp! — legitimate playoff run in the second half of this entertaining season.
It wouldn’t be easy — eight of the Jets’ 10 remaining opponents have winning records at the moment — but the mere mention of the “P” word for a team expected to languish in the league cellar speaks volumes about a group that has raised a collective middle finger to their critics.
“We could be 3-5, we could be 5-3 or we could be 4-4… and those are three very different scenarios,” tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said about the next two games. “These are critical games. We’re really in the hunt for kind of everything right now. We’re 3-3. Things could go either way. The games get bigger and bigger. As you win, they get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
History tells us that Cutler shrinks like a frightened turtle in big and small moments. He’s been an equal-opportunity no-show at various times in his career.
Cutler, who was a nonfactor in Miami’s 20-6 loss to the Jets last month, hasn’t quite lit it up during his team’s two-game winning streak. The veteran quarterback has completed just 52.5% of his passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions in wins over the Titans and Falcons.
He might be the tonic for an invisible Jets pass rush that includes no sacks from a defensive lineman through six games.
Cutler to the rescue.
“There’s definitely opportunities,” Leonard Williams said. “Every team we play against, we see certain opportunities. We see him holding on to the ball. We see when a lot of pressure gets on him up front, his passes aren’t that great. Even if we aren’t able to get sacks, as long as we’re getting pressure and in his face and hitting him, he’s going to get uncomfortable. That’s when he’ll start throwing bad passes.”
“Watching the film,” Williams added, “I see guys getting back there. I see guys getting pressure. He does hold on to the ball and get flustered… That’s why I said he makes mistakes when he does get flustered. He will let go of the ball when he sometimes gets pressure in his face. That’s when he throws interceptions.”
In other words, Cutler gonna Cutler.
The Dolphins have rediscovered their ground attack in recent weeks after the Jets erased Jay Ajayi in Week 3. The running back gained 18 yards on back-to-back carries on Miami’s final game-winning drive over the Falcons last week. He gained just 16 yards on 10 carries in the first game against Bowles’ defense.
“Since we played them last, they’re a little more hard-headed,” defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said. “They are determined to get the running game going.”
Ajayi has averaged 24 carries and 4.2 yards per carry in Miami’s three wins and just 11.5 carries and 2.7 yards per carry in two losses.
Despite the Dolphins’ obvious preference to take the game out of Cutler’s hands and into Ajayi’s meaty paws, don’t expect a radically different team than the one from a few weeks ago.
“It’s not like they’re going to change anything,” defensive lineman Steve McLendon said. “They’re just going to try to perfect what they do. Just try to do some things better. This is in-season. You already know what a team’s going to do. You pretty much got the film out. They can sprinkle in a little play here and there, but it’s not going to really change much.”
A pair of wins in the next two weeks would put Bowles in a familiar position at the midpoint of the season. The Jets were 5-3 in 2015 before coming up just short of the playoffs. They were on life support at 3-5 last season before it all unraveled.
“We have to get above .500 if we want to make any noise,” Bowles said this week. “We have some spurts and we have some things we need to get better at. So, we have to start putting it together.”
Beating the Dolphins and Falcons would turn the Jets into something nobody predicted: A contender.