FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Rex Ryan's first regular season ended with a victory lap, the coach and his team high-fiving fans minutes after their playoff berth-clinching victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
On Sunday, the New York Jets will take what amounts to a three-hour victory lap, facing the Buffalo Bills in a wild-card dress rehearsal -- a relatively meaningless season finale that, in all likelihood, will be their last home appearance until next August.
The circumstances couldn't be more different than last year. The Jets could finish 11-5, two wins better than '09, but there isn't the same energy around the team. Maybe the 1-3 December is the reason. The swagger has been replaced by stagger.
That said, it's still not too late to change things. Even though they probably will be starting from a dead stop -- if, as expected, the Jets approach Sunday like a preseason game -- they still can recapture their old mojo for the playoffs.
For that to happen, Ryan needs to recapture his own.
He possessed the golden touch last season, making good on brash predictions and cooking up quirky teaching tools like the color-coded chart for Mark Sanchez, but Ryan hasn't been the same coach in Year 2. That needs to change if the Jets are going to do anything in January.
While Ryan has done a commendable of job of insulating his team from the many off-the-field incidents -- some of which could be indirectly blamed on him -- his actual coaching has raised eyebrows.
There have been clock-management hiccups and ill-advised replay challenges and wacky plays that have made no sense. See last week's fake punt in Chicago. There have been communication breakdowns between players on the field and coaches on the sideline.
In a larger sense, the Jets have lost their ground-and-pound mentality on offense and the defense, Ryan's pride and joy, is struggling to recall its identity.
When the once-swagger-licious defense admits it has lost its way, you have to wonder.
Coming off a terrible performance against the Bears, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said they "needed to hit the reset button." Defensive end Shaun Ellis said they've evolved into a read-and-react defense, claiming they've lost their aggressive approach.
That's on Ryan, who always preaches that he wants to have the most physical team in the league. To his credit, he stepped up this week, instilling a back-to-basics approach and taking control of the defensive meeting on Wednesday.
If nothing else, Ryan's presence in the room served as a wake-up call. He did the same thing last season with the offense, and it had a positive effect. But, at the same time, Ryan sent mixed messages this week, saying how badly he wants to beat the Bills but admitting he will approach it like the third preseason game. No doubt, he knows how to motivate behind the scenes. He recently called out Sanchez and challenged the offensive line, both of which had the desired result.
"Eleven wins would be great, but quite honestly, we want to win in the playoffs," he said.
But, publicly, it has been a different story. Ryan has come off as indecisive, indicating after the loss in Chicago that he wanted to rest the sore-shouldered Sanchez for the finale then pulling an about-face, ultimately deciding to start Sanchez in what figures to be an abbreviated outing. He unwittingly set a relaxed tone in the locker room with his initial intention.
"If you look at us, as a whole this year, every time we had a bit of a break, we haven't played too well coming back, so I think it's important for us to keep that rhythm, that tempo we've been playing with that last couple of weeks," said running back LaDainian Tomlinson, alluding to their 0-3 record and poor offensive performances after extended layoffs.
No matter how Sunday turns out, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery believes they will be battle tested for the playoffs. He might be right. Even though the Jets have lost only five games, the first four cut deep because of the manner in which they lost -- no touchdowns. When you can't score, it always looks worse than it really is. They survived those mini-disasters, and could be better for it.
"We've been through a lot this season and all of our goals are still intact," Cotchery said. "Our goal is the Super Bowl. We made it to the postseason and now we have the opportunity to get that accomplished. The X was on our back. We've fought through a lot of distractions, but we're still here."
Still here, needing their larger-than-life coach to galvanize them before it's too late.