EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The hecklers already can be heard openly mocking the absurdity of it all.
The New York Jets are in the playoffs?
That's right. They backed in.
But had the Jets not qualified for the postseason, ridicule would've been louder. The team with the NFL's best defense and top rushing offense should be a lock for the playoffs, and anything less would warrant gobs of negative criticism.
So it can't be both.
Either the Jets deserved to get into the playoffs, or they didn't.
The Jets need to make no apologies for what they've accomplished.
The Jets (9-7), with a bombastic rookie head coach and a capricious rookie quarterback, made the bracket. They'll face the host Bengals again, this time at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in Paul Brown Stadium.
"When you look at the body of work, you see that we can do some special things," Jets fullback Tony Richardson said. "Most teams that do have the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 rushing attack and play great on special teams generally do make the playoffs.
"No matter how we got in, and people might always want to put an asterisk by it, we just have to get ready to work next week."
And that's the real punch line. The Jets will convene this week not to clean out their lockers like 20 other NFL teams will, but to get ready for another game.
It took an outrageous sequence of fortuitous events for the Jets to get in. AccuScore pegged the Jets' chances of breaking into the playoffs at 11.6 percent entering their Week 16 game against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts. But the Jets took a third-quarter lead in Lucas Oil Stadium, and the Colts pulled Peyton Manning.
Voila, a Jets victory.
But that wasn't nearly enough to swing the door so wide open that all the Jets needed to do in their regular-season finale was beat an opponent that already had clinched the AFC North and could rest its players.
"We definitely got some good breaks," Jets kicker Jay Feely said. "Unfortunately, we had some breaks go against us earlier in the season, or else we could've been in a much better situation.
"But this is a team that has a lot of character. We never lost faith in ourselves. This locker room was never -- in any way -- fractured at all. That's one of the reasons we were able to stay together when we lost critical games."
Feely would know. The Jets seemed to have bottomed out with a heartbreaking Week 15 home defeat to the Atlanta Falcons. The field-goal unit butchered three field goal attempts and the defense gave up a last-second fourth-and-goal touchdown to lose 10-7.
After the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan suffered a bout of premature elimination, declaring his team mathematically out from the playoff race.
"So when you get a couple breaks, you've got to be thankful for them," Feely said. "Now that we're in the playoffs, I think we’ve got as good of a chance as anybody to go all the way."
Teams don't have to be elite to get into the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals were dismissed as undeserving a year ago, when they won the NFC West at 9-7. Then they went to the Super Bowl and came darn close to winning the whole thing.
"To get to the Super Bowl, it's all about hitting your stride at the right time," said outside linebacker Calvin Pace, who signed with the Jets last year after five seasons with the Cardinals. "Now, whether or not we're doing that, I don't know. We're playing well. But it's about finishing the season well in December.
"If you can get some momentum, man, anything can happen. ... If we can continue to stick to our formula, the sky's the limit."
Without star nose tackle Kris Jenkins, the Jets' defense finished atop the league in several categories. They allowed only 252.3 yards a game, 32.1 yards fewer than the next stingiest team. They gave up an average of 15.5 first downs a game and a league-low 163.9 passing yards a game. The Bengals had zero net passing yards Sunday night.
The Dallas Cowboys edged out the Jets in average scoring defense by one-tenth of a point.
The Jets' run game has been relentless behind Thomas Jones. The Jets amassed 257 rushing yards on the Bengals, giving them an average of 172.3 for the season.
The lone variable to the Jets' yo-yoing success has been greenhorn quarterback Mark Sanchez.
The Jets have figured out a way to marginalize him within their run-dominated offense. Sanchez completed 8 of 16 attempts for 63 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions Sunday night. In the second half, he had one pass for 9 yards.
Still, the Jets rolled up 37 points. The Bengals (10-6) scratched running back Cedric Benson and pulled several key players for the second half, but that final score will give the Bengals something to think about for the rematch.
"I think it's very tough to regroup after you got physically manhandled like that," Feely said. "When you have three plays in the first quarter and a half and we physically dominated them, it's very hard to regroup.
"They're a good team, and they've done a great job all year of overcoming adversity through all the tough times that they've had, so I'm sure they'll regroup and it'll be a great game. But we definitely sent a message."
The Jets validated themselves, not just Sunday night, but throughout the season.
They'll be the only team in the postseason with a rookie quarterback, but the fact they were able to overcome that liability shows they're an opponent to be reckoned with.
"All that matters is that we are in the postseason," right tackle Damien Woody said. "You earn everything you get in this league. Nothing is given to you."