Notice that all of the talk about the Jets backing into the postseason suddenly has dissolved? Amazing what a road win in the wild-card round will do to change perceptions.
And if the Jets somehow can get past the red-hot Chargers in the divisional round, all doubts will have been removed about their playoff worthiness. A trip to the AFC Championship Game, and we'll be talking about the Jets' chances of getting to the Super Bowl for the first time in 41 seasons.
Will the ride continue Sunday in San Diego?
It will if the Jets follow these five keys to victory:
1) Defend the deep pass
Jets linebacker Bart Scott tells me the Chargers take more deep shots than any other team in the league. With Philip Rivers emerging as one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks and with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd boasting plenty of size and speed, defending the deep pass is going to be critical.
The Jets don't have to worry about lockdown cornerback Darrelle Revis, who most likely will shadow Jackson. But safeties Jim Leonhard and especially Kerry Rhodes need to be at their best to make sure they keep those receivers in front of them. Not an easy task, especially on the deep posts and "go" routes the Chargers like to run.
Key stat: Jackson and Floyd each averages 17.2 yards per catch, among the highest of all NFL wide receivers.
2) Watch out for the screens
Most teams have de-emphasized the screen pass in recent years, but not the Chargers. Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said the Chargers employ the screen pass better than any other team in the league. It's been a favorite play of coach/offensive coordinator Norv Turner dating to his days with the Cowboys' Super Bowl championship teams in the 1990s. Running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles are the targets of these short passes from Rivers, and the results can be devastating, especially if the Chargers act as if they're preparing to throw deep.
As Pettine explains, if the safeties and linebackers drift too far back to defend against the medium- and long-range routes, huge gaps will develop in the middle of the field that allow Tomlinson and Sproles to rip off huge gains.
Key stat: The speedy, 5-6 Sproles leads the Chargers' running backs with 45 catches for 497 yards and four touchdowns. He averages 11 yards per catch, a very solid number for a running back.
3) Get Sanchez in the flow early
San Diego is one of the top offensive teams in the league, averaging 28.4 points per game. Which means the Jets are going to have to be prepared to score more than they're used to. And if that's the case, Mark Sanchez will have to be a bigger factor in the passing game than in previous weeks. The Jets' preference is to limit Sanchez's throws, as their offense has focused on using running backs Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene. There's nothing wrong with utilizing the Jones-Greene combo to keep the chains moving and keep the Chargers off the field, but if the Jets are going to need Sanchez to wing it more than usual in this one - and that very well could be the case - then they ought to get things going early.
Key stat: Sanchez has attempted fewer than 20 passes in five of his last six games, a number that might have to rise, especially if the Jets give up more points to the Chargers' high-octane offense.
4) Three words for Braylon Edwards: Catch the ball!
The 26-year-old receiver has been plagued by dropped passes in recent weeks, just as he was during his days with Cleveland. Rex Ryan is predicting a breakout game for Edwards very soon. If it happens Sunday in San Diego, the Jets' offense will have an added dimension and will put some fear into the Chargers' defense.
Key stats: The Chargers have allowed 209.2 passing yards per game and 23 touchdown passes. That means San Diego's pass defense is vulnerable, which could open things up for Edwards. Now it's up to him to come up big when it matters most and to avoid the drops.
5) Keep Antonio Gates in check
Rhodes might be the Jets' most important defender in this game, and not just because he'll have to defend the deep routes against Jackson and Floyd. His coverage of Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates will be a major factor. Rhodes generally has done an excellent job against tight ends when he's assigned the coverage, but this might be his toughest task of all. Gates likes to run the seam route by splitting the safeties, but he's also exceptional at deeper crossing routes.
Key stat: Gates averaged 14.2 yards a catch, a number most wide receivers would be happy to produce. His 1,157 receiving yards were a career high, and he scored eight TDs. Good luck, Kerry.