Geno Smith is the key to the Jets' playoff hopes
It is all right there for the Jets: seven games to play, a schedule that softens up after a brutal midseason stretch, and in the driver's seat for the second AFC wild-card spot.
The 5-4 Jets returned from their bye week Monday refreshed, recharged and with a sense of optimism. But as much as they like what they see in their immediate future, this still will come down to the rookie quarterback.
If Geno Smith sorts out his turnover problems, the Jets will have a chance to play into January. If he doesn't, they won't.
Smith had an opportunity to get a little rest and relaxation during the bye week, and he took time to reflect on the good and the bad from the first half. The good: He was mostly terrific in wins over the Falcons, Saints and Patriots. The bad: Most of his 13 interceptions were costly against the Patriots, Titans, Steelers and Bengals. "Every single one of them crushes me," he said. "I hate affecting my team in a negative light. Every single one hurts me."
For the Jets to make the playoffs, Smith has to cut down on his turnovers. And there might be a trend emerging with the interceptions: Many of them have come in road games.
In the Jets' three road losses, Smith has seven interceptions. The only road game in which he didn't throw a pick was the win over the Falcons, who have taken a nosedive after earning the NFC's No. 1 seed last year.
At home, the Jets are 4-1 and Smith has six interceptions.
For the Jets to break their streak of win one, lose one, Smith needs to be more consistent in the next seven games, four of which are on the road. They are at the Bills and Ravens, host the Dolphins and Raiders, and have two of their final three on the road against the Panthers and Dolphins (sandwiched around a home game against the Browns).
"It comes down to execution in those [road] games," Smith said. "I've had good games, but the interceptions and the turnovers can hurt us. I hope eventually we'll get to the point where we won't be talking about it."
Now would be a good time to reverse the trend. The Jets will face a 3-7 Bills team coming off yet another dispiriting loss.
Rex Ryan acknowledged that the acclimation process can be tough for first-year players on the road. "It starts with the noise," he said. "You play at home, you're in the friendly confines and everyone is behind you. [On the road], you have to relish it. It's really you and 60 or 70 people in the organization that represent the Jets, and that's all you got."
This is all so new for Smith, who's still getting used to the different venues around the NFL. Every rookie must experience it, but Smith is trying to push the learning curve and get up to speed for the stretch run.
Much of Smith's mission revolves around not "going off the reservation" with the game plan, as quarterbacks coach David Lee has told him.
"You can't put things on your shoulders. You can't try and be a hero," Smith said. "You have to stick with the game plan and let it play out. Last game , I didn't force the ball. It starts with me being smart with the football."
The Jets have a strong enough running game and a good enough defense that all Smith needs to do is be a game manager, not commit the big mistake and make a few plays when necessary. It's a formula that has worked well in the Jets' wins but one that Smith hasn't followed in the losses.
He hopes it's out of his system. So do the Jets, because that's their only chance to finish off their season of surprise with a playoff run.