With all of us coming out of our Thanksgiving night comas—whether induced by turkey tryptophan or that punt-heavy Giants game—it’s time to re-focus on the New York Jets. They come out of their late bye week to start a difficult final stretch of the season that starts with a showdown against the Carolina Panthers Sunday.
The Jets host Carolina at MetLife Stadium, where they’ve been 3-2 this season as opposed to 1-4 on the road. Their only losses in New Jersey came to Super Bowl XLI participants New England and Atlanta (by seven and five points, respectively), and their Week 4 overtime triumph over the Jaguars looks better every week as Jacksonville is now 7-3.
However, there’s not too much to smile about given the Jets’ recent performance against Tampa Bay. If they could only score 10 points on the worst the NFC South has to offer, and lose to Ryan Fitzpatrick, how will they keep up with the Panthers?
Cam Newton has had a very up-and-down season—just ask this fantasy owner—and that’s saying nothing of the embarrassments he’s gotten himself into off the field. On it, he overthrew 6-foot-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin so often that the team just gave up on the guy and traded him to Buffalo. His Panthers only recently lost to Chicago in pretty inexplicable fashion, 17-3; Newton was responsible for a lost fumble and a couple of picks, and rookie Eddie Jackson scored the game’s only touchdowns on the fumble and one of the INTs.
But that was the Panthers’ worst loss of the year. The other games they dropped came to NFC powerhouses New Orleans and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Carolina has won three straight, and Newton is coming off his best game of the year in every respect. Newton picked apart the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, going 21 for 35 for 254 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. He posted season highs in both QBR (92.8) and rushing yards (95, including one nice 69-yard run).
Will this game be all about the Jets’ defense versus Newton? No, but you can predict how the rest of the game will go based on how well or how poorly New York fares in containing Newton. Elite QB or not, role model or not, Newton reminded everyone Monday that he is a freakish athlete, almost singularly talented around the corners of the NFL. But on his worst days, he’s unbearable to watch. Can rookies Jamal Adams or Marcus Maye pull an Eddie Jackson and grab a clutch interception? Jets fans should hope so.
On the other side of the field, it’s hard to imagine Josh McCown and Bilal Powell leading an offensive attack that keeps up with Newton’s Panthers at their best. With Luke Kuechly anchoring Carolina’s D, the Jets may need to rely on the big play rather than long, methodical scoring drives to keep up. Last season, the Jets’ offense had 11 runs of 20-plus yards and none that went 40 or longer. This year, they’ve already had eight 20-plus-yard runs through 10 games and three that eclipsed 40. Those game-breakers help keep an inferior team in a game by drastically changing field position, or the scoreboard, in the blink of an eye.
Still, I don’t expect it to be enough to beat Carolina. Perhaps that’s for the best: Even though the Jets are very much alive in the AFC Wild Card race, their December schedule (featuring Kansas City, New Orleans and New England) is too tough to imagine them making the final push toward January football. The NFL has been a race to 8-8 all year, and in such a world, it’s better to be the 5-11 team with the better draft pick. As I pointed out on Twitter Sunday, the Jets were in a nine-way tie at 4-6 after Week 11. Washington and the Chargers already won games Thursday and moved to 5-6, potentially starting to thin out the competition for a top-10 draft pick in April.