TAMPA, Fla. - Just to make sure his team wasn't caught sleepwalking yesterday, Rex Ryan turned the keys over to Earl Christy on Saturday night, when the defensive back/kick returner for the Jets' Super Bowl III champions addressed the team.
Christy delivered a fiery speech that left him so amped, he was looking for a helmet, shoulder pads and an old No. 45 jersey to toss on.
"I was so fired up, I fired myself up," Christy said. "I was in a zone. I'm serious."
Said linebacker Calvin Pace: "He came in and gave us some real inspirational stuff."
Against such a hapless opponent, the pep talk might have been overkill in this case. The Jets had their way with the Bucs, manhandling them, 26-3, at Raymond James Stadium.
Kellen Clemens did a good job of managing the game, Thomas Jones ran for two touchdowns against his former team and the Jets terrorized rookie Josh Freeman, picking him off three times on the way to keeping their longshot playoff hopes intact and giving Ryan a present on his 47th birthday.
Winners of three straight since a 1-6 swoon, the Jets (7-6) pulled into a virtual four-way tie for the AFC's final wild-card berth with Jacksonville, Baltimore and Miami. They still need help because they don't have many tiebreakers against the teams they're chasing, but the Jets think they're making moves.
"We're just rolling right now," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "We've got three straight wins. We're high. We're confident. I think guys are putting more time in the study rooms and taking this very serious. We have an opportunity to control our own destiny by getting to the playoffs. We've just got to keep on winning, and then at the end of the season, we'll see where the chips fall."
Clemens, making his ninth start and first since 2007, was unspectacular but mostly effective filling in for Mark Sanchez. The rookie stayed in New Jersey to get more treatment for his sprained right knee and is expected to start Sunday against the Falcons.
Clemens compiled a mediocre 65.7 passer rating as he completed 12 of 23 for 111 yards. But the key stat for the fourth-year quarterback was this: zero turnovers.
"I'd be lying if I said that I hadn't come in here with a little bit higher expectation," said Clemens, 4-5 as a starter. "But I think I did what's necessary - no turnovers and made good decisions in the run game, got us in and out of a couple of plays that we didn't want to be in. So I did my job. I don't think that I certainly blew the top off anything, but I did what was required of me."
The Jets mostly put the ball in the hands of Jones and Shonn Greene, gaining 175 yards on 42 attempts against a run defense that came in ranked 31st.
"We are going to be who we are," Ryan said. "We believe in running the football and we believe in throwing completions. That is our game plan. It has been that way all year, but the thing we did a great job of is not turning the football over."
Instead, they made things miserable for the Bucs (1-12). The Jets rattled Freeman from the outset, with David Harris intercepting him on the game's first play to set up a 40-yard field goal by Tampa's own Jay Feely. The Jets clamped down on the Bucs, holding them to six first downs - zero in the first half to go with 15 total yards - and 124 net yards. They sacked Freeman three times and harassed him all day.
"This week I think he played the best defense in the National Football League, and he went out there and they showed him why," said Bucs coach and Hofstra product Raheem Morris. "They sent all kinds of pressures. We couldn't handle the pressure up front . . . They outmanned us on defense."
The Jets added field goals of 24 and 49 yards, and Jones' 33-yard touchdown run gave them a 16-0 halftime lead. Revis' team-leading sixth interception and 54-yard return set up Jones' 7-yard TD in the fourth quarter for a 23-point bulge.
"We feel real good," Harris said. "Came out and executed, put three together in a row. And we've still got three big games coming up.
"It's pretty much do-or-die right now. It feels like we are in the playoffs already because every game counts. It's a tight race for that wild card right now that Jacksonville lost. But we've still got a shot and we're going to keep approaching it that way."