FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- We saw, for a moment this week, a flashback to the old Rex Ryan, from the days before the vagaries of directing a teetering team under a new general manager sapped the New York Jets coach of his bluster and bravado.
It was sparked by a question about Bill Belichick, who always brings out the best in Ryan. (After all, it was Ryan who famously said he is not here to kiss Belichick's rings.) Asked about Belichick saying the Jets had employed the same improper pushing technique on field-goal defense that cost the New England Patriots a flag -- and handed New York last Sunday's game -- Ryan had had enough.
"That's not true!" Ryan said, with a dismissive smirk. "He's got to make up his mind. Was he aware of this thing? Was it second level, all this kind of jazz? Or, now the story is we did it? OK, I got you."
Nobody knows if close-to-the-vest GM John Idzik has specifically told Ryan to pipe down this year, or if Ryan has been worn down by all the losing, as well as the trading away of his favorite player, cornerback Darrelle Revis. Regardless, Belichick elicited a throwback Rexism, harking back to a time when Super Bowl guarantees burst forth at Ryan's news conferences as regularly as the injury report.
Like their coach, the Jets -- after months of wobbling through the muck created by the end of the failed Tim Tebow experiment, the sinking of Revis Island and their much-ridiculed quarterback competition -- appear to be pushing to emerge on the other side. Defeating the Patriots on that overtime field goal last week lifted New York to 4-3 -- already more wins than many predicted for the 2013 Jets -- and into a spot one game behind the Patriots in the AFC East.
Those negative predictions irked the Jets, it turned out. Ryan's team is nothing if not self-confident (sometimes misguidedly so). Now, the victory over the Patriots, as well as upcoming games against the Bengalsand Saints -- leaders of the AFC North and NFC South, respectively -- have put the Jets on an interesting perch: They're already higher than most imagined they could climb, but soaring enough that a fall now would be even more painful.
Willie Colon, the veteran offensive lineman who joined the Jets this year, called Sunday's win over the Patriots a "crossroads game," because it gave the Jets a shot to eventually seize the AFC East. That such a scenario is even a consideration with the season half over is a credit to Ryan -- who must have felt as if his career was being pulled out from under him when Revis was traded last April in a clear rebuilding move -- and to a hodge-podge collection of players who have managed to use the public's collective dismissal as glue. Colon said he's seen the culture changing within the Jets, even since he arrived in the spring. For one thing, offensive and defensive players -- once divided by their miles-apart performance levels -- are mixing again.
Mention to Colon that the victory over the Patriots was unexpected, and he notes under his breath, "Every win is unexpected from the outside."
Of the dire preseason forecasts, Colon said, "I wear it right here," pointing to his hip. "I put it in my pocket and don't forget it. Somebody ranks you dead last -- even if we earned it, you don't want to be last in anything. We can't overthink it. We're making strides."
This season began as a referendum on Ryan's future, and it still is; owner Woody Johnson said this week he wouldn't address Ryan's contract status until after the season. But it has morphed, with head-spinning speed, into a legitimate playoff push, too. It resembles those campaigns that first catapulted Ryan into his role as head coach/chest thumper, to the delight of Jets fans desperate for a hero and the eye-rolling annoyance of just about everyone else. There is the shut-down defense and the inconsistent rookie quarterback and the occasional improbable victory that breathes fresh life into the season.
A few years ago, this was the province of Mark Sanchez, back when he was dating starlets and taking the Jets to two straight AFC Championship Games -- and not being run into preseason games behind backup offensive linemen in the ostensible pursuit of something called the Snoopy Trophy. Now, it falls to the wildly unpredictable Geno Smith.
The Jets have yet to string two wins together this season -- the victory over the Patriots means they are due to lose to the Bengals on Sunday -- but the mood around the team has noticeably lifted since the preseason. Then, it felt as if the games would constitute a slow march to Ryan's guillotine with the roster being overhauled around him. Now, veterans like Calvin Pace find progress in the fact that the Jets finally finished a game by playing well at the end.
Those are baby steps, but for a team that is winning by just the barest of margins, baby steps will have to do. After all, were it not for two penalties -- one committed by the Buccaneers in the season opener and the other committed by the Patriots last week -- the Jets almost certainly would have lost two more games. And there is little doubt that the Jets could just as easily lose the next two -- or five -- as win them.
Ryan and the Jets are not apologizing for any of it. To understand why this season has been such a pleasant surprise so far, it helps to be familiar with the pothole-filled history of the franchise. A stroll by the Jets' Ring of Honor banners in their fieldhouse is a reminder of the contemporary dearth of star players -- Curtis Martin is the only inductee of recent playing vintage. A sign that reads "Play like a Jet" in the fieldhouse invites giggles, mostly because that statement could refer to anything from Joe Namath's Super Bowl guarantee to Santonio Holmes being cast out of the huddle after arguing with teammates with playoff hopes on the line on the final day of the season to Sanchez's butt-fumble.
Last year, after the Jets melted down on national television in a 14-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans that included four Sanchez interceptions, a fumbled snap and Ryan muttering expletives as he left the field, former Jets quarterback Ray Lucas appeared on SNY's postgame show and shouted out a list of people who had to go. Former Jets coach Herm Edwards gave the most scathing critique possible of a team that remains, almost always, in the shadow of its more successful neighbor.
"You look at one franchise, the Giants," Edwards told me then. "They have ups and downs. But it's never catastrophic. It's never like this."
Harrison: Week 8 Game Picks
How will a host of injuries impact Week 8 in the NFL? Elliot Harrison provides his predicted outcome for every game on the slate. **READ**
"Nothing Great Ever Came Easy," it read.
In addition to the Jets' quest to keep their unlikely season going, here are 10 more things to ponder as Week 8 unfolds:
1) What are we to make of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady? He's thrown just one touchdown pass in the past three games -- though it was a memorable one: the game-winner with five seconds remaining against the Saints -- and his level has dipped this season. He is completing just 55.4 percent of his passes and is facing far more pressure than he did last season, getting sacked nearly three times per game. The Patriots have performed particularly poorly in the red zone. However, the Dolphins might provide a cure for that; they're last in the NFL in goal-to-go situations, allowing a touchdown in 10 of 11 such scenarios.
2) What can Andre Carter do for New England's suddenly fragile defense? Carter, who had 10 sacks for the 2011 Patriots, had been out of football until his old team called him this week. The run defense has sprung a leak since Vince Wilfork was lost for the season, but the Patriots really need help holding a lead. Since the beginning of last season, the Pats have lost seven games (including their playoff defeat). In those seven contests, New England either led or was tied at halftime six times, holding a 21-10 advantage at the break last week before eventually falling to the Jets. But if the Dolphins fall behind and are forced to pass ... look out, Ryan Tannehill! He has been sacked a league-high 26 times, which is a big reason the Dolphins acquired Bryant McKinnie this week.
3) Can the revived Giants defense handle Michael Vick and his balky hamstring? New York, which had allowed 123.3 rushing yards in its first six games, shut down the Vikings' Adrian Peterson on Monday night, allowing just 30 rushing yards total. Vick is second in rushing among all quarterbacks with 307 yards, even after missing the past two games with a hamstring injury. But the Eagles' rushing yards have gone down in each of the past five weeks, bottoming out with just 84 last Sunday against Dallas.
4) Can Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder regain the starting job and redeem his career against the Green Bay Packers? With Josh Freeman suffering concussion symptoms after a disastrous performance against the Giants, Ponder will start Sunday -- and is in line for a shot at winning his job back. With the Packers' third-ranked rushing defense sure to key on stopping Adrian Peterson, Ponder hardly can do worse than the 37.7 completion percentage Freeman notched Monday, the lowest percentage recorded this season among quarterbacks with at least 20 attempts in a game. Good news: Over Ponder's three games this year, his completion percentage was 59.
5) While Browns brass wade through their quarterback morass, can Jason Campbell survive the Kansas City Chiefs? Cleveland has allowed the second-most sacks in the league (27) -- three of which came just last week against the Packers. The undefeated Chiefs lead the league in sacks with 35, 10 more than the second-place Ravens. The 31-year-old Campbell, meanwhile, last started a game nearly a year ago, for the Bears: a 32-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 19, 2012.
6) Can the Broncos' defense get its act together against the improving Washington offense? The Broncos rank 27th in scoring defense, allowing 28.1 points per game. No team has ever ranked that low and won the Super Bowl, with the 2011 Giants ranking the lowest (25th) among all Super Bowl winners in scoring defense (they allowed 25 points per game). The Redskins, meanwhile, have the 10th-ranked scoring offense, and the running game has improved with Robert Griffin III's mobility. In the past two weeks, Washington averaged 212.5 rushing yards per game. The bad news for the Redskins: The Broncos have the best rushing defense in the league, mostly because teams have to pass to catch up. The good news: The Broncos are last in passing defense, allowing 319.9 yards per game, which means Griffin might be able to improve on the 57 percent completion rate he's had since Week 4.
7) Will the New Orleans Saints' passing offense get back on track? The Saints' aerial attack was thrown off kilter in the loss to the Patriots two weeks ago, with Drew Brees held under 300 yards for the second straight game. Brees' completion percentage against the Patriots was 47.2, the fifth-worst mark of his career. The Bills are allowing 380.4 yards per game -- 24th in the NFL -- and have allowed at least 20 points in each game this season. But they also lead the NFL in interceptions (12) and are fourth in sacks (23). A critical factor in Sunday's matchup: Will Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who hurt his foot against the Patriots, be able to play? And how effective will he be?
8) Can the Arizona Cardinals find the cure for their Seattle Seahawks hangover? The Seahawks' defense -- featuring the "Legion of Boom" secondary -- is renowned for its physicality, but the aches don't end when the clock runs out. Their opponents this season are 0-6 in games the week after playing them, getting outscored 172-62. The Seahawks' most recent victims -- the Cardinals -- host the Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta is depleted at receiver, but quarterback Matt Ryan is on pace to have his best statistical season ever. He's passed for 13 touchdowns and three interceptions this season, and is on track for 5,125 yards, 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
9) Will the Seahawks feast on Kellen Clemens? With Sam Bradford out for the year, the St. Louis Rams are turning to Clemens, whose teams have gone 4-8 in his 12 career starts. He's also never thrown more than one touchdown pass in any given contest. He's been sacked at least three times in 10 of his starts. Clemens last started in 2011, and the Rams lost all three games he started that year. The Seahawks are averaging 4.7 sacks per game, and are second in the league in pass defense, allowing just 190.6 yards per game.
10) Is there any stopping the barrage of points? Teams have combined for 4,928 points. That's the most through the first seven weeks in NFL history, and 125 more points than last year at this time. They've also combined for 542 touchdowns, also the most in league history -- by 13 touchdowns -- at this point. And don't blame it all on poor defense; this season already has seen 30 interceptions returned for touchdowns, the second-most through Week 7 since 1970.