Miracle not enough to mask Jets problems

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Amid the sheepish laughter and unconvincing sighs of relief, a pall wafted through the New York Jets locker room Sunday.

Imagine enjoying the warm revelry of your office Christmas party before you notice the bony hand cradling the eggnog ladle belongs to the Grim Reaper.

This is not a time for unbridled mirth for the Jets, and they know it. They deserved to lose Sunday.

The Buffalo Bills had the game well in hand, plowing forth behind Marshawn Lynch. All the Bills had to do was run out the final two minutes. Maybe they would have to punt, but they have a Pro Bowler for that. Their defense had contained the Jets throughout the second half.

Right then, the Bills called a rollout pass play. Usual backup quarterback J.P. Losman might as well have asked the Jets' defense to put an index finger on the ribbon so he could tie a pretty bow.

Sack. Fumble. Rumble. Touchdown. Jets win ugly 31-27.

Afterward, I asked several Jets if what had just transpired instilled confidence or raised more concerns. Each player paused before answering. Some responded with nervous laughter or facial expressions that indicated they would rather not weigh anything other than the victory.

"We're just happy to escape," Jets tight end Chris Baker said. "We're still in first place. We didn't have any expectations of how they game was going to go. We only expected to win. We're going to move on."

The Jets needed that triumph badly to remain tied with the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots atop the AFC East.

The Jets had dropped two games in a row against teams they were favored to defeat. A third such loss would've waylaid their playoff plans.

"At this point in the season the key thing is to get the win," Jets head coach Eric Mangini said Monday. "There are things that we've needed to improve every game of the season. There are things we need to improve from this game.

"It's not like the BCS. We don't get voted down for style points. We're first place in the division, and we have two games to go.

"The win is the win is the win."

And the problems are the problems are the problems.

Reasons do exist for Jets fans to remain confident their staggering team will reach the playoffs, which looked like a given after they knocked off the defending AFC champion Patriots and undefeated Tennessee Titans in consecutive weeks.

  • The cheap victory buys them one more week to figure out how they went from fashionable Super Bowl pick to mediocre after losing to the Denver Broncos at home and the San Francisco 49ers.

  • Running back Thomas Jones is playing at an elite level. He has at least one touchdown in eight straight games and 14 touchdowns in his past 10 games.

  • Leon Washington continues to be electric on offense and kicks returns.

  • Their pass defense went into Sunday ranked No. 31 but played well against the Bills.

"The biggest thing," Jets fullback Tony Richardson said about Sunday's improbable finish, "is if you didn't believe before you definitely should believe now.

"Play hard for 60 minutes and then look at the scoreboard because you never know what play is going to be the biggest play to determine the outcome of the game."

But there are more reasons to be concerned than confident of the Jets' chances to play in January.

Here are five troubling trends the Jets must cope with to make the playoffs:

1. Run defense not looking elite anymore.

The Jets aren't stopping the run like they used to. Nose tackle Kris Jenkins, their MVP for most of the season, looks worn.

Two Sundays after Broncos rookie Peyton Hillis ran for 129 yards, Lynch went for 127 yards and carried a 6.0 average. It was the Jets' first game since Week 3 that an opposing back finished with the most rushing yards.

When the Jets met the Bills on Nov. 2 -- in Ralph Wilson Stadium and with starting quarterback Trent Edwards running the offense -- Lynch ran nine times for 16 yards. In last week's loss to the Dolphins, Lynch ran for 31 yards.

Buffalo's most startling run on Sunday was made by backup Fred Jackson, who rambled 11 yards with a gang of Jets on his back.

2. Troubles on third down.

The Jets rate decently in turning third downs into first downs. They're at 41 percent for the season, tying them for 12th in the NFL. But they've converted only eight of their past 32 third downs.

Against the Broncos three weeks ago, the Jets converted 27 percent. The number plunged to 10 percent in their loss to the 49ers.

The Jets finished Sunday with a middling 36 percent, but all four of their third-down conversions came early. They failed to convert any of their final six third downs.

The Bills, meanwhile, converted six of 14 third downs and both times they went for it on fourth down.

The 49ers converted 52 percent of their third downs and their only fourth-down attempt against the Jets a week earlier.

3. Brett Favre's pedestrian numbers.

Favre's best passer rating over the past three weeks is a 61.4 and he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in each of those games. Top receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery have combined for 17 receptions over that span.

Favre threw two more int
erceptions on Sunday, giving him an NFL-worst 17 for the season.

In the season finale, he'll face the opportunistic Dolphins, who lead the NFL with a plus-12 turnover margin.

4. Sunday's game in Seattle.

With a three-way tie in the AFC East and only two games left, victories are paramount.

The Jets on Sunday will travel cross country to meet the Seattle Seahawks, who are 3-11.

But unfavorable circumstances abound for the Jets.

They are 0-3 in games played out West. They've lost at San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco. The Dolphins and Patriots went 5-1 against those teams.

The Seahawks should be inspired about Sunday, which will be head coach Mike Holmgren's final home game before stepping down.

The Seahawks are coming off a victory -- albeit over the St. Louis Rams -- and have played well lately, nearly beating the Patriots on Dec. 7.

5. Breaks have a way of evening out.

Luck has played a significant role in the Jets building their 9-5 record.

Favre's fourth-down desperation heave for a touchdown in Week 1 to beat the Dolphins ... a wild finish to beat the Kansas City Chiefs despite three Favre interceptions ... winning the coin flip to short-circuit the surging Patriots in sudden death ... Losman's fumble ...

"We're 9-5, and it doesn't have an asterisk beside it," Favre said Sunday. "It's kind of like in baseball, when you get a little 'Punch and Judy' [hit] right over the first baseman's head. The box score doesn't say 'Punch and Judy.' It says single.

"A home run is a home run. A win's a win. Once again, it doesn't matter how you win them. All I know is this team is 9-5 and we're still in first place."