FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan tried to cover up his happiness with some out-of-character coachspeak.
Sure, a few teams in the AFC playoff mix lost and helped improve the New York Jets' chances, but Ryan isn't concerned about all that, right?
"All I'm worried about is this next game that we play," Ryan said Monday. "That's where the entire focus is -- as far as anybody knows."
Then came a laugh and an admission.
"It was like, 'Whoa!"' Ryan said, his true feelings bursting out. "To think that I wasn't cheering for the Oakland Raiders against Pittsburgh, OK, I'll admit it, I was cheering for Oakland. Tonight, as much as I love the Ravens and all the people there, I'll be cheering for Green Bay. It's that time of year."
Yep, when every loss counts and your playoff status can improve while you're sitting home watching games on TV.
"I was watching games yesterday and I saw that New England lost," right tackle Damien Woody said. "Pittsburgh lost and hopefully Baltimore loses. Things are really falling our way for us, but first and foremost, we've got to handle our business and keep winning ballgames. If we do that, I think good things will happen for us."
At 6-6, the Jets would miss the playoffs if they started today, but they're in a lot better shape than they were just over a week ago. New York was 4-6 and in danger of having its postseason hopes prematurely dashed.
"When we were struggling and losing a few games, things did seem a little bleak," fullback Tony Richardson said. "The biggest thing is what Coach Ryan kept telling us is focus on one game at a time and one week at a time. That's the only thing you have control over."
The Jets responded by beating Carolina 17-6 last Sunday and followed that with a 19-13 victory over Buffalo in Toronto four days later. Then, Pittsburgh (6-6), New England (7-5), Tennessee (5-7) and Houston (5-7) all lost Sunday, helping the Jets go from being on the edge of the playoff hunt to right in the middle of it. Suddenly, New York is tied with Miami, one game behind AFC East-leading New England.
"I think you can make assumptions that our morale was down, but that was an assumption," Ryan said. "We still had a belief. I don't expect anyone else to believe it and I said that back then. Everybody in this building believes in this football team, that we can still accomplish things."
That's not just Ryan being an optimistic coach, either. The Jets play at Tampa Bay (1-11) on Sunday and are then home against struggling Atlanta (6-6). Then, they're at undefeated Indianapolis, which might have the AFC's No. 1 seed wrapped up by then, and end the regular season at home against Cincinnati, which might have already clinched the AFC North title.
"It's always great to be still alive this late in the season," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We've just got to take care of our business. I appreciate the help, but we still have four games to go and a lot of tough opponents to go through. It's not time to start watching what other people do. You have to take care of your business and hopefully you earn a chance. If we don't, then it's nobody's fault but our own."
Despite quarterback Mark Sanchez's uncertain status after spraining his right knee against the Bills, the Jets have reason to be optimistic. New York is ranked No. 1 in overall defense -- just ahead of Green Bay -- and hold that position this late in a season for the first time since the 1968 Super Bowl season.
"It's something to be proud of, hang our hats on and build off of," Scott said. "I know in trying to establish a tradition, it's important to get the first one so we can see what it looks like. This can be our measuring stick. Hopefully we can continue to have this success this season and something for future Jets to build off of. We can try to establish this as the norm."
The Jets also have the league's top rushing offense and pass defense, rankings that wouldn't normally be associated with a team that's only .500.
"We know why we've lost games," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "It's not like we've gone out there and got run off the field. A lot of it is on us. We have to do a better job of handling our business as far as the silly penalties, the lapses and the mental errors. If we clean that up, the game will get a whole lot easier for us."
Even if the playoff picture remains muddled for a few more weeks, the Jets are confident they'll be in contention until the end.
"This team is close," Ryan said. "We're close to being a special football team. Nobody can deny that."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press