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Week 9 observations: Jets will cruise to AFC East title

You have to hand it to Rex Ryan. He might grate on you some with his bluster, and the Jets might not be the most popular team on a national scale, but the big man backs it up, more often than not.

OK, so that Super Bowl prediction thing hasn't worked out so well for him yet. But for the third straight year, he appears to have righted his team at a time of potential crisis. And it's hard to imagine the playoffs without this wacky bunch back and making noise again.

Every year I watch Mark Sanchez struggle for a spell and see this team look patently mediocre and wonder where the natural pass rushers are and figure this over-the-hill gang will start to spiral in the standings. But then they rally and get into the postseason and play their best football on the biggest stage.

I can't doubt them this time around. You know, that 'ol fool-me-once routine. I still wonder about the quarterback and whether guys like LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress will hit the wall, but after sandwiching huge wins over Buffalo and San Diego around the bye, New York is positioned to be a factor again. (And yes, I hear you about the Bills and Chargers not exactly being the mid-'90s Cowboys, but those are crucial AFC wins with tiebreaking potential).

If the Jets take care of the suddenly reeling Patriots this weekend, then the rest of their AFC journey sets up quite nicely for Rex and the boys. They go to Denver, and don't leave the East Coast after that at all, with remaining conference games against Buffalo, Kansas City and Miami. And they'll face Buffalo on extended rest coming off the Thursday night game at Denver.

Yeah, this is looking familiar to me. They lost three in a row to fall to 2-3 and were out-muscled by Oakland and Baltimore in the process. But center Nick Mangold got healthy, Rex did his Rex In Crisis thing, and now they've won three in a row. In 2010, they got blown out by New England, lost to lowly Miami the next week and faced a daunting December trip to Pittsburgh. They ended up beating the Steelers. In 2009, Rex himself declared them essentially out of the playoffs after a December loss to Atlanta, but then who can forget the debut of Curtis Painter and the Colts resting their starters and the 9-7 Jets ended up in the AFC Championship Game.

I doubted them back then. Won't be fooled again.

The Jets are going to beat the Patriots and make a power move in this division and ended up hosting a playoff game for a change (ditto for the Ravens, who have been stuck behind Pittsburgh the way the Jets have been behind New England). The Jets went ahead and got the adversity out of the way in October this time around, and I foresee relative smooth sailing by the time the holiday season arrives this year. Heck, Rex won't know what to do with himself if he's sitting on a two-game lead as the schedule winds down. Unchartered territory there.

It's cliché and all, but this group thrives on being doubted and even seems to enjoy a little bit of drama. If this defense continues to play as it has for the past six quarters or so, the Jets are going to pull away from the 5-3 pack in the AFC East. I don't believe they'll get over that AFC Championship hump -- I need to see more consistency from Sanchez, and more accuracy, and still have some concerns about the run game as well -- but this group is playoff-tested and they will be in the mix again.

The Patriots and Bills will battle it out for a wild-card spot (the Bengals will have something to say about that as well), but this is New York's year in the AFC East. I absolutely, positively, guarantee it. Take it to the bank. Well, OK, that was my inner Rex writing there. While I'll leave the guarantees to the gregarious coach, I have a strong feeling Jets fans are going to enjoy the second half of the season.

Believe in the Bengals

There are plenty of things I believe in watching the Bengals. I believe in defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. I believe in their ability to stuff the run with an unheralded but powerful defensive line. I believe that Carlos Dunlap is an elite pass rusher. I believe that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green will make people forget about Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco for years to come.

I'm just not ready to believe in the entire package, just yet. The offensive line is much improved, the influx of young talent has been impressive and it ain't easy to win five straight games in this league, no matter who you are playing. But it doesn't always mean that team will be playoff-bound (ask the 2009 Broncos).

We're about to find out all we need to know about exactly how far ahead of the curve the Bengals are this month. They host the Steelers, go to Baltimore, get a quick reprieve with Cleveland and then go to Pittsburgh and host the Texans. That would test any team. The reality is, with this first half, if the Bengals manage to go 2-3 in that stretch, they'll be playing very meaningful games into late December.

The Bengals are tied with Baltimore for best in the NFL against the run, allowing 3.35 yards per carry. They haven't been as stout against the pass, but where it really counts -- offensive points allowed -- the Bengals trail only Baltimore and San Francisco. This team isn't going to fall apart, and it will continue to beat the lesser teams in the NFL. The future is incredibly bright. Still, the division is so tough that you can't help but wonder if some of their inexperience will show up in what will amount to playoff games these next five weeks.

Bucs bereft of playmakers

There is so much to like about how Tampa Bay has rebuilt its club, and that team will be back in the postseason sooner rather than later. But this isn't shaping up as their year and the decision to stay out of the free-agent market for pass catchers is costing them now.

Josh Freeman is forcing things, he's regressed off last season's form and the lack of talent around him has at least something to do with it. They don't have guys who present match-up problems, no individual you have to fear because of speed or a unique skill set. Mike Williams leads the team with just 37 catches for 363 yards through eight games.

The Bucs front office was very, very concerned about upsetting the chemistry of this "youngry" bunch, as coach Raheem Morris calls them. But if this franchise is going to take the next step, then it's going to need to procure a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. Preston Parker has been the closest thing to a security blanket, but again, you're not talking about a guy capable of any physical mismatches.

Freeman lacks a real go-to guy to bail him out, and he's trying to make a play when it's not there. His four red-zone interceptions are twice as many as any other quarterback in the league, a year after shining in clutch situations. Tampa's receiving corps is down there with the Bears, Redskins and Browns in terms of lack of game-changers, and I'd be surprised if it isn't addressed this offseason.

Odds and ends

» Another example of just how dominant the Packers' offense is: Sixty-five percent of Green Bay's first-down passes go for four yards or more. The league average is 51 percent. That sets up the run game, puts the defense on its heels and results in a lot of scoring. When you combine that with their quick-strike ability and Aaron Rodgers' all-around brilliance, man, look out.

» Pretty amazing how well the Steelers have fared considering they have an NFL-worst minus-11 turnover ratio. I know seven of them came in the Week 1 loss to Baltimore, but still, to be a game off the top seed in the AFC with that ratio is unusual. More surprising, at least to me, is the fact that Pittsburgh's defense is tied for an NFL-low with four takeaways. I can't imagine that continues much longer with all the defensive talent there.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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