CHARLOTTE, N.C. - By almost any measure, this has been a delightfully surprising season for a Jets team that didn't figure to win much at all. With a rookie quarterback starting every game, no less. That they're even mathematically alive in the playoff race this late in the season -- especially with Tom Coughlin's two-time Super Bowl champions already out of it -- well, that's just the cherry on top.
But when you get this far, even with a team no one outside the locker room thought would compete for a playoff spot, you raise the bar of expectations. Beat the Patriots and Saints in a three-week span in the first half of the season? You at least raise the possibility of beating other contending teams as well.
Which is precisely where the Jets are again heading into Sunday's game against the resurgent Panthers, who at 9-4 also are one of the league's surprise teams this season.
It's one more chance for the Jets to provide further legitimacy to their season, especially in what amounts to a must-win situation on the road against a quality opponent. And if they're going to conquer this latest foe, they'll have to do it with the strength of their team: defense. With Geno Smith still going through his share of growing pains, the best chance for the Jets to pull off the upset is through a defense that has faced its own identity crisis in recent weeks.
It has been a rocky month since the Jets came out of their bye week brimming with optimism at 5-4. Three straight losses and then last week's win over the Raiders have exposed weaknesses in coach Rex Ryan's unit that the defensive mastermind has yet to fix. And if the problems persist against Cam Newton and his reinvigorated offense, this one will get ugly in a hurry. Like 38-0 ugly, which was the score by which the Giants lost to the Panthers in Week 3 of their 0-6 meltdown.
The Jets, of course, aren't thinking that way coming in. Even after underperforming through most of their 1-3 slide, the players do not look at the video of the Panthers' offense with despair. They look at it with a sense of opportunism.
Defensive tackle Mo Wilkerson was talking about the challenges of facing the 6-5, 240-pound Newton when he came up with a rare weakness the Jets can take advantage of.
"Cam is a big guy, kind of like Ben [Roethlisberger],'' Wilkerson said. "When we get to him, we've got to make sure we wrap him up. Can't let him extend plays and make big plays for his team. He's a great athlete and he knows how to make people miss."
The flaw in Newton's game? "He's a guy who's pretty loose with the ball,'' Wilkerson said, "so we've got to get after him and attack the ball."
Wilkerson has noticed on video that Newton occasionally leaves the ball exposed when he scrambles. It was a big problem last year, when Newton had 10 fumbles and lost three. He has been more careful with the ball this year, fumbling only three times and losing one. But still, it's something Wilkerson will watch and mention to his teammates.
Wilkerson seems unfazed about the weak defensive production in recent weeks. The Jets' run defense is ranked second; even so, they gave up a 63-yard touchdown run last week against the Raiders. The pass defense remains vulnerable, ranking 24th with 254.9 passing yards allowed. They're tied for next-to-last with 14 passes of at least 40 yards, and their 36 sacks rank 11th overall.
"I'm always confident in me and my teammates, guys out there on defense," Wilkerson said. "We know we can get the job done."
Linebacker Demario Davis hasn't lost confidence either.
"Our confidence is everything," he said. "It hasn't gone away."
Then how to explain the mistakes of the past month?
"It's just that -- mistakes," he said. "Got to get them corrected in practice. It happens. Teams make good plays. But this is the time of the year when execution has to be flawless. We have to get better."
Especially with the win-or-else dynamic heading into this one.
"It's pretty much playoff football," he said. "You have to win or you go home."
So how to attack the Panthers' offense? Go after Newton, yes, but of equal importance is stopping the run.
"Make 'em one-dimensional," rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. "You stop the run, you do that. You stop the run, then they go back to their basic stuff."
Linebacker David Harris agrees.
"They're a run-first team, so yeah, we've got to take care of that first," he said. "Cam Newton as well."
Will the Jets opt to "spy" Newton by having a linebacker or defensive back follow the quarterback?
"Not telling," Harris said. "Got to find out when we play."
As for the defense's recent struggles, Harris seems unconcerned.
"Anything we've done in the past," he said, "it doesn't matter."
Actually, the Jets might want to go back to some things they've done in the past. If they defend the Panthers as well as they did the Saints and Patriots, they'll have a chance to play more meaningful games. If not, then it's pretty much over until next year.