Jets try to dodge another December doom

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Two years ago, it was the dysfunctional locker room. A year ago, it was the three-quarterback circus. When it comes to December, the New York Jets always seem to be in the middle of something messy and losing games.

They finished the last two seasons on three-game losing streaks. When that was mentioned Monday to coach Rex Ryan, who has three games remaining in his fifth season, his face lost color. He looked like he had been informed of an IRS audit.

"Oh, gosh," he said.

It's hard to imagine Ryan surviving another three-game losing streak, but the good news (for him) is that the Jets are in a better place, mentally, than last year and the year before.

Right now, there are no headline-making distractions swirling around the team. Yes, trouble is always lurking -- the quarterback situation could explode again with a couple of interceptions by Geno Smith -- but the Jets have been quieter than in past years under Ryan.

The circus is gone, replaced by a library. Now let's see if these studious, hard-working players, as Ryan describes them, can go out and finish the season on an upswing.

"I hope that doesn't happen again, my gosh," said Ryan, alluding to his past closing problems. "I'm confident it won't, but you have to focus on this particular moment and go from there. But, man, we've got to fix that one."

Maybe the Jets (6-7) experienced their late-season woes a little earlier than usual, as they just snapped a three-game skid by beating the Oakland Raiders. Hanukkah came early, so why not the Jets' losing streak?

Tackle Austin Howard, one of the most perceptive players in the locker room, said the recent slump served as a wake-up call, reminding players of what it takes to be successful late in the season. He offered a candid assessment of what wasn't happening.

"We learned from the past few games the impact of a lack of preparedness," he said. "We didn't prepare well for the previous games like we did this past week. Now we have that feeling of how it feels to prepare well and we’re going to carry that through."

It might be too late, as the Jets' playoff hopes are slim. If Howard's observation is accurate, it begs the question: What took so long to find that mindset? They needed it coming out of the bye week, at 5-4, when the season still contained so much promise.

"I believe we let our frustrations get the best of us," Howard said. "Obviously, we were upset we lost games we shouldn't have. The tension of feeling the season slip away got the better of us."

They played three lousy games in a row, becoming the team we thought they were at the start of the season. The playoffs probably are out of reach. In fact, if they lose to the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens beat the Detroit Lions, the Jets are eliminated.

Ryan can survive elimination; what could doom him is a repeat of the past two years.

In the season-ending losing streaks, the Jets were outscored, 162-86; finished minus-11 in turnover margin; never scored more than 19 points; bickered with each other (Santonio Holmes versus Wayne Hunter) and became a laughingstock by mismanaging the Mark Sanchez-Tim Tebow-Greg McElroy quarterback soap opera.

It was bad football by a dysfunctional team.

They've cleaned up their image, behaving like grownups. As for the football, well, the Jets aren't collapse-proof. They still have two games on the road, Smith is capable of reverting to Bad Geno at any moment and the defense, which carried them to their first five wins, appears to be wearing down.

Ryan, who believes he learned a thing or two from the mistakes of his previous stretch runs, said he's planning to cut back on practice reps to keep the team fresh.

They know what not to do. Now all they have to do is make nice, be respectable and avoid the dreaded December choke.