On Monday, the New York Jets return from their bye week, beginning a seven-game push for the playoffs. They can make it, but these five players have to deliver down the stretch:
1. Geno Smith: It'll start with a second look at the Buffalo Bills, whom he torched for a season-high 331 yards in the first meeting. But the schedule gets tougher after that, as the Jets face three top-10 defenses in the final six games. Smith has evolved into more of a game manager in recent weeks -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- and that probably will continue because there aren't any explosive offensive teams left on the schedule. In other words, there will be a lot of ugly, low-scoring games, which will put a premium on Smith's decision-making and ball security.
2. Chris Ivory: You can see where the offense is headed, as the Jets have become more reliant on Ivory in recent weeks. He's a bruising, downhill runner, the kind of back that defenses don't like to tackle in cold weather. With Ivory, it's all about staying healthy. You may have heard, he's not the most durable guy in the world. If he can run with the same energy and nasty he brought last week against the New Orleans Saints, the Jets will be a formidable opponent. It won't be easy; they face four of the top eight rushing defenses.
3. Santonio Holmes: He can be a pain in the butt, but there's no denying his importance to the offense. He has missed five games with a significant hamstring injury, but there's a chance he'll be ready to go after the bye. The trendy opinion is to say the Jets are better off without him, but that's simply not true. The stats show they're more efficient when he's on the field. A healthy Holmes for the stretch run would be a big boost. Anybody remember how well he played during the 2010 playoff run?
4. Dee Milliner: It has been a rough year for the rookie cornerback, but his play improved against the Saints. A season-changing performance? We'll see. The Jets' inconsistent secondary would be significantly better if Milliner could hold down a starting job. The good news for Milliner and the other corners: The Jets don't face any wide receivers currently ranked in the top 28 in catches. Antonio Cromartie will be happy about that, too, because he hasn't had the greatest year. But this all about Milliner; he's the kid with the target on his back.
5. Nick Folk: What more can you ask of the man? He's having a career year -- 23-for-23 on field goals. Guess what? His work is far from over. The Jets will play a handful of teams like themselves, opponents with inconsistent offenses and that win with defense. That means there will be low-scoring, close games, and that means Folk will have to maintain his torrid pace. No one expects him to stay perfect, but he will have to be Captain Clutch. The Jets' play calling has become conservative in recent weeks, in part, because they're so Folk-reliant, thinking he's automatic. He's the Jets' version of Mariano Rivera, a superb closer.