Ryan and Gang face biggest test ever

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On their previous trip to Seattle -- December 2008 -- the Brett Favre-led New York Jets were more concerned with snowball-throwing fans than winning the football game. They quit on their coach, Eric Mangini, who was fired a week later.

There's no snow in the forecast for Sunday, and there are no pink slips in Rex Ryan's immediate future, but that doesn't diminish the importance of the game. For Ryan and Mark Sanchez, this is the biggest regular-season road game in their 3½ years together. It might be the biggest game, period.

If the Jets (3-5) want to make a playoff run, it has to start with a win over the Seahawks (5-4), a solid team that plays like an elite team in its ear-splitting stadium. As usual, there's no shortage of confidence, with Antonio Cromartie guaranteeing the playoffs and Ryan backing him up.

Logic says they're nuts. We're not talking about a mini-slump here; this is an extended period of losing football -- 3-8 since last December. The only teams with a worse record over that span are the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, both 2-10.

"It can't get much tougher, but maybe that's what we need," said Ryan, alluding to the opponent, the venue and everything else stacked against the Jets. "Maybe that will pull this group together."

Ryan spent the last two weeks under the hood of his green and white truck, tightening screws, replacing small parts and changing the oil. The way he described it, it was the most productive bye week in the history of bye weeks.

Coaches evaluated players. Coaches evaluated coaches. Ryan evaluated Ryan. He's confident they solved the riddle of the team's maddening inconsistency. Then again, when isn't he confident?

This game is a referendum on Ryan's crisis-management skills. From a mental and physical standpoint, his team should be at its peak, refreshed and refocused after the break. There are no excuses. None.

He always talks about this team's resilience, its ability to overcome adversity. Well, here is the perfect opportunity to prove it.

Since upsetting the New England Patriots in the 2010 playoffs, the Jets have managed only one quality road win -- at Buffalo, Week 9 in 2011 -- and even that lost its luster because the Bills ended up in the tank.

"This game, it's huge … it's tremendous," defensive tackle Mike DeVito said. "It has to be a playoff mentality every week, and it starts now."

Ryan did a lot of tinkering during the bye week, but he will ultimately be judged by the move he didn't make – sticking with Sanchez. If he felt Tim Tebow could save the season, Ryan would've made the change after the embarrassing loss to the Miami Dolphins. Clearly, he doesn't feel that Tebow is the answer.

Neither does the locker room, based on the general sentiment. But is it because they believe in Sanchez or because they don't believe in Tebow? It might be more of the latter.

Obviously, the Jets have more issues than just Sanchez, but there comes a time when the quarterback needs to be the great equalizer. This is that time for Sanchez, who has to clean up his game.

GM Mike Tannenbaum went on the radio the other day and lamented Sanchez's "killer" mistakes in the red zone -- three interceptions, all momentum-swinging plays. The only quarterback with more red-zone turnovers is Michael Vick (four), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Sanchez could have four, too, except a fumble against the San Francisco 49ers occurred at the 25-yard line.

Sanchez was one of the top-rated red-zone quarterbacks last season, and now he's by far the lowest -- a 50.0 passer rating. His league-worst completion percentage (52.9) is the lowest for a quarterback with at least 250 attempts through eight games since Gus Frerotte (52.4) and Eli Manning (51.6) in 2005, per ESPN Stats.

Asked to assess his play, Sanchez shifted it to a team perspective: "We're what our record shows." He also slipped in that only one of those three red-zone interceptions was a bad throw, blaming the others on a tipped pass and a bad route – "a lot of dumb mistakes," according to tight end Dustin Keller.

Publicly, Ryan handles Sanchez with kid gloves, rarely criticizing his play. He wants to make it work with Sanchez because … well, he has little choice. The team is committed to him for next season ($8.25 million in guarantees) and it has little faith in Tebow as a passer. If Ryan benches Sanchez, it would be akin to waving a white flag on the season.

Ryan tried to toss Sanchez a compliment the other day, but he unwittingly provided a brutally frank assessment of his quarterback's perceived shortcomings. He talked about Sanchez needing the help of those around him -- linemen blocking, receivers getting open and runners running.

"I'm confident that if we put it on Mark's shoulders, and all those others things are in place, I'm confident he can throw the ball with the best of them," Ryan said.

That's like saying a .260 hitter can be a .300 hitter if he gets a steady diet of 3-1 fastballs. Or an average shooter in basketball can be a marksman if he gets mostly uncontested looks. Trouble is, how often do we see optimal conditions in sports? Not very often.

Good players and good teams adjust. The Jets will face tough conditions Sunday in Seattle. It will be loud and it will get chaotic, but if they're as good as they say they are – read: Cromartie – they will find a way. If not, we won't be talking snowballs. We'll be talking about another Jets snow job.