Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Jets watches from the sidelines...

Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers of the Jets watches from the sidelines during a game against the Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on Sunday in Las Vegas. Credit: Getty Images/Sean M. Haffey

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. —  For most of the still-buoyant teams in the NFL, the ones whose seasons have at least the pilot light of postseason hope flickering in them, the ones who are still driven by what they can accomplish this season and not who they can draft for the next one, the race for the playoffs is about to begin in earnest.

That’s what always happens around this time of the year, Thanksgiving being the traditional demarcation to usher in not just the holiday season but the crunchy part of the NFL’s schedule. It’s when those “if the regular season ended today” in-or-out playoff scenario graphics start to be taken more seriously because the day the season does actually end in early January is suddenly within sight.

The Jets, somehow, some way, still are in that ever-dwindling group of teams that can still achieve all that it set out to accomplish when training camp practices began in July. They are 4-5, and while their two recent losses to fellow AFC wild-card contenders Los Angeles and Las Vegas may loom as doom in future head-to-head tiebreakers, they are just two games out of the lead in the AFC East with two games remaining against first-place Miami and a key division game in Buffalo, a team they already beat, on Sunday.

But the Jets are running a separate race, too. It’s one no other team is participating in, one that is a contest not against opponents but against time and for their own relevance.

The finish line is Aaron Rodgers’ return. The Jets have run about 26 miles of this improbable marathon and now appear to be just .2 miles from crossing it, but these are the most daunting steps of the challenge.

Getting back the quarterback around whom this team was built to compete, the player who brought a seldom-seen confidence and strut to the entire organization, the one whose play would instantly turn the slagging offense from a handicap that has to be overcome into an actual reason to believe in success, would change the entire outlook of the next two months for the Jets, the AFC, and perhaps even the NFL. The Jets would become instant title contenders, just as they were up until around 8:30 p.m. on Sept. 11 when Rodgers limped off the field in their opener.

It will only happen if Rodgers is medically cleared and if the Jets are still a viable team. Guess which condition is looking more like the impediment these days. Hint: Not the one that would defy just about everything we have come to know about physiology and recovery from serious surgery in nearly 40-year-old athletes.

The great irony here is the Jets thought Rodgers would make them winners and they were probably correct. Now they have to show they are winners in order to get Rodgers back again.

They don’t see it that way, of course. At least not entirely.

“The pressure to keep it afloat is just to keep it afloat,” coach Robert Saleh said on Wednesday, denying that they are playing to get Rodgers back. “The pressure to go to the playoffs is always present. It’s not for any individual, not for any possibility. It’s because we are competitors and we want to win football games.

“Aaron,” he added, however, “would be the icing on the cake.”

We could be just a few short weeks away from sampling that dessert.

Rodgers said during his weekly stream-of-consciousness exercise on Tuesday that doubles as an appearance on "The Pat McAfee Show" that he has no set date for a return. He said if his rehab goes well and the Jets are still clinging to a chance he might be back soon, as in early December.

“If we are not in it, in three or four weeks, that could take it a different way,” he said. “I expect us to be in it and I expect to come back. That’s about all I can tell you at this point.”

The Jets initially wooed Rodgers here in the spring by flying their team’s brass to California and convincing him of their vision for mutual success. It was a long shot, but it worked. Now, in late autumn of the same year, they once again find themselves having to compel Rodgers that he belongs on the field with them, that the glory both sides yearned for awaits.

This time, though, it is on-the-field results, not words or money or other promises, that must carry their argument.

Let’s face it, the Jets have never been very good at those kinds of negotiations.

Even before the injury in the opener this 2023 campaign was always going to be a tug-of-war between two immense, opposing forces. The driving and consuming will to win of a quarterback who has claimed four MVPs, a Super Bowl, and slam dunk Hall of Fame credentials tugging at one end of the rope against the weight of a perpetually spiraling, postseason-deprived and perhaps even cursed franchise on the other.

How awfully damning and depressing would it be if Rodgers somehow were able to hold up his end of this absurd covenant made with the team shortly after he tore his Achilles two months ago, that he would spend countless hours and resources in an attempt to make it back and play again before the season was finished, only for the Jets to not fulfill their part of the pact by maintaining a meaningfulness to the late-season games that would make them worthy of the reinjury risks Rodgers would be facing to participate in them.

The final decision on all of this, Saleh said, likely belongs to Rodgers. Quarterbacking the Jets remains his job . . . if he desires it.

“Aaron’s a big boy, a grown man,” he said. “No one is going to know Aaron’s body like Aaron knows his body. After all the doctors clear him, and I’m sure there are a million of them, I have no idea, but if Aaron says he wants to play he’s going to play.”

Giving him reason to want to do so, that’s what’s on the line for the Jets now. That race is afoot.

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