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New York Jets' offense can be more than a complementary unit

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It was fashionable to talk about the New York Jets as serious contenders when their defense opened the season by terrorizing opponents. Now it's more realistic to see this team's possibilities through the lens of an improved offense. This is no longer simply a matter of whether quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can produce consistently -- it's an issue of how much an underrated unit can grow and what that will mean for a team still discovering exactly what it can be.

CHARGERS AT RAIDERS

There's no disputing that the Jets have looked impressive at times because of defenders like Darrelle Revis, David Harris and Muhammad Wilkerson. There's also little doubt that their offense is slowly developing an identity that will be critical as the playoff race comes into focus. They have a solid running game led by Chris Ivory. They have talented receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. When Fitzpatrick is on his game, this unit can do exactly the things that a defensive-minded coach like Todd Bowles wants.

There would be no better time than this Thursday night for the Jets' offense to show all that it can be. The Buffalo Bills are coming to town and bringing head coach Rex Ryan, the man who led Gang Green from 2009 through 2014, with them.

"They lead the offense in red-zone offense and it isn't a surprise," said Ryan, referring to the fact that the Jets have scored touchdowns on a league-high 75 percent of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line this year. "You've got those two giants -- Decker and Brandon Marshall -- out there. I think Decker has six touchdowns already. And a great runner in Ivory, and that is going to help your red zone [production]."

The Jets' defense has been so good that it's been easy for people to paint this team as the typical squad that only needs the offense to not screw things up. It's a mold that worked most notably for Super Bowl champions like the 1985 Bears, 2000 Ravens, 2002 Buccaneers and 2013 Seahawks. It's a formula that Ryan also tried to utilize during his six-year tenure in New York, but one that netted far more mixed results. His Jets teams never found consistency at the quarterback position and they too often fielded rosters devoid of remarkable supporting casts.

This year's Jets, now 5-3, have profited from a bit of luck as well as some smart personnel moves. Fitzpatrick became a Week 1 starter after Geno Smith sustained a broken jaw in a locker room fight. Marshall arrived via an offseason trade with Chicago, while Decker was a marquee free-agent addition in 2014. Ivory also gained an opportunity for more carries this fall once Chris Johnson departed through free agency.

As a result, the Jets have fielded a unit that can be as diversified as any in the league when at its best. They currently rank 11th in the NFL in both total offense (365.9 yards per game) and points scored (25 per game). As Ryan pointed out, these Jets are far better at handling their business when they're within striking distance of the end zone -- Gang Green ranked 25th or worse in red-zone scoring in four of Ryan's six seasons -- and they also have their hands on a formula that should suit them well once the temperatures start dropping.

Ivory has emerged as the critical cog in the entire process. The Jets have won all four games in which he's received at least 20 carries. He's been quiet the last three weeks -- gaining just 84 total yards in those games, including losses to New England and Oakland -- but he also was averaging 115 yards in his first four starts. In fact, Ivory was on the shelf with an injury when the Jets suffered their first defeat of the season, a 24-17 loss to Philadelphia in Week 3.

A healthy Ivory makes life easier for everybody on that offense, especially Fitzpatrick. Anybody who's followed this quarterback's 11-year career knows the book on him. He's been a journeyman with a mediocre arm and a penchant for turning the ball over in bunches. But Fitzpatrick also is intelligent enough to have earned a Harvard degree -- and he possesses an acute understanding of how he can help this team prosper.

The bar was quite low at the position when Fitzpatrick stepped in for Smith during training camp -- Geno had thrown 25 touchdown passes and 34 interceptions in his first two NFL seasons -- so the veteran's efficiency has been welcome. Thus far, Fitzpatrick has a 61.8 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

"Fitz is a smart quarterback," one AFC player personnel director said. "When he tries to do it all and make it about himself, that's when he's prone to mistakes. But when he plays within the offense as a game manager, he can be productive. That's what he's done, for the most part, in New York."

Fitzpatrick's value only has increased now that he's playing with torn ligaments in his left thumb. That problem forced him out of the 34-20 loss to Oakland and quickly left Jets fans wondering what would happen to their team's long-term fortunes. Fitzpatrick answered that question by grinding through a 28-23 win over Jacksonville this past Sunday, but his situation won't get any easier moving forward. It's already been reported that he could undergo surgery as early as this Friday (though he won't necessarily miss any games).

The upside here is that we're all seeing the toughness in this offense. The Jets' offensive players understand that they're likely viewed as background singers on this team, but they also realize they'll have plenty of moments to shine. The fact is that they've only struggled this year when injuries have befallen them or they've tried to press too hard. Marshall's ill-advised failed lateral in the aforementioned Eagles defeat and his dropped passes in the 30-23 loss to New England are vivid examples of what can happen when the Jets' offense thinks it has to be more than what it is.

Every game, all season

The reality is that New York's offense could be quite dangerous during the second half of the season if Fitzpatrick and Ivory can stay on the field. This unit doesn't generate a ton of explosive plays -- a knock that always has dogged Fitzpatrick -- but the Jets also don't need that to be productive. Their greatest strength is the physical nature they bring to the field. With big receivers, a bruising offensive line and a banger in Ivory, they have exactly the right personality to mesh with a defense that is dynamic.

The question now is whether that offense is ready to be more than just an asset that makes life easier on the other side of the football. If it can do that, then the Jets should deliver even more surprises than we've already seen.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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