In their first game since being officially eliminated from the playoff picture, the New York Jets will be playing for pride, and perhaps their coach, in their home finale against the 7-7 Los Angeles Chargers on Christmas Eve. The Chargers will be playing for something much more pressing — their playoff lives.
The Chargers have a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight, and that would rise to 25 percent if they beat the Jets. But New York would spoil their Christmas wishes with a win Sunday, because the Chargers would be eliminated with a loss in either of their final two games.
I’d argue that the Chargers have had the most peculiar season of any team in the NFL this year. They started 0-4 but lost three of those games by two or three points, including a 26-24 loss to NFC-leading Philadelphia. All of their wins came in quick streaks of three and four. They’ve played their first season of games in Los Angeles in Major League Soccer’s tiny StubHub Center, where they’ve averaged 25,322 fans per home contest. They had the incredible fortune to face Nathan Peterman instead of a briefly benched Tyrod Taylor when L.A. played Buffalo, and that 54-24 joke of a game might bite the Bills in the rear if the teams somehow tie for a wild card spot. While that blowout was memorable, their only “quality win” arguably came on Thanksgiving when they handled the Cowboys.
All that will be behind them when they come to MetLife this weekend, with a simple goal of winning to keep the playoff push going.
The Jets just allowed 93 receiving yards to the Saints’ Michael Thomas, and 43 of them came after the catch according to The Football Database. New York has a hole at No. 1 cornerback — Morris Claiborne hasn’t done his job lately — and it will be exposed again this week by another high-target-share wideout. Keenan Allen is fourth in the league in receiving yards, and I don’t know anyone on the Jets capable of covering him one-on-one.
Allen having a highly productive game usually translates to a Chargers win. During Los Angeles’ 3-6 start, Allen averaged 66 yards a game and eclipsed five receptions in a game just once. In the team’s four-game winning streak that followed, Allen caught 12 balls for 159 yards vs. Buffalo, 11 for 172 vs. Dallas, 10 for 105 vs. Cleveland and six for 111 vs. Washington. He also caught four of his five touchdowns this season during that red-hot stretch.
Expect Allen to garner double-digit targets from Philip Rivers for the eighth time this season once the quarterback recognizes his top receiver is frequently open against the Jets. (Rivers, by the way, is 3-1 against the Jets all-time.)
The Jets have a few things going for them, of course. New York has been a much better team at MetLife than on the road this year — 4-3 at home versus 1-6 on the road. Even their three home losses all came by one possession to playoff-caliber teams (New England, Atlanta and Carolina). This game will kick off at 1 p.m. Eastern, which is often difficult for a West Coast team traveling east to get up for.
So what should the Jets’ strategy be on offense if they have little hope to stop Allen on defense? It shouldn’t be up to Bryce Petty, that’s for sure. Petty didn’t have a dismal outing in his first start of 2017 last week, but he’s shown himself to be a below-average back-up and he’ll look like one Sunday. Los Angeles gives up the fourth-fewest passing yards per game, and their 16 interceptions puts them in the top quarter of the league.
It’s an entirely different story in the running game. The Chargers give up 128.3 yards per game on the ground and 4.8 yards per carry, the league’s third-worst and second-worst marks, respectively. The Jets only stand a chance if they run the ball, and actually run it with impact. In the four games since their bye week, they’ve eclipsed 100 rushing yards as a team three times, but with no single player gaining more than 58 in a game.
Over that span, Bilal Powell has been the Jets’ leading rusher with just 40 yards per game, but it’s Elijah McGuire, the best late-round pick in recent team history, who’s averaged over 4.0 yards per carry. Matt Forte looks older every week; if John Morton doesn’t want to “raise the white flag” like he did two weeks ago in Denver, the only sensible game plan is to use Powell and McGuire in heavy rotation.
While he’s at it, I hope Morton knows this stat: the Jets gain more yards per carry behind their left guard (5.5) than any team in the league, according to the NFL’s Game Stats and Information System. Here’s to you, James Carpenter. Your Pro Football Focus grade doesn’t tell your whole story.
This author doesn’t think the Jets will or should win Sunday. They’re still in play for a top five pick if enough bad teams win some games, and 4-10 Chicago plays Cleveland this week, for goodness’ sake. If you’re bored of whatever Christmas Eve party you might be at, stay tuned to nyjetfuel.com for coverage of this likely mismatch of a game and how it affects the Jets’ 2018 draft position.