CLEVELAND — This might surprise some people in other NFL cities but for these Jets, it’s no big deal. In fact, this is their new reality: First place.
How many had the Jets in first place in the office pool at any point during the 2017 season?
Well, that’s where the Jets are, in a three-way tie for first in the AFC East after an ugly 17-14 victory over the winless Browns on Sunday.
“Sounds like that’s how it’s supposed to be,” said Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne, who had an interception. “We shouldn’t let the first two [games] go but that’s in the past. We are where we are from working and playing together.”
These Jets (3-2) are tied with Buffalo and New England atop the AFC East. Come next Sunday, the Jets and Patriots, the defending Super Bowl champs, face off in MetLife Stadium with, yep, first place on the line.
The Jets go into the contest with a three-game winning streak, their longest since 2015, when they started 2-0 in Todd Bowles’ first season.
It was just last week when Bowles said his team hadn’t accomplished anything with a 2-2 mark. What about now?
“We haven’t done anything,” the head coach said. “We have won three games. Three out of five and we still have 11 to play. It is good to string together wins, no matter how pretty or how ugly. It’s good to string together wins and learn to win in different ways, but we just have to keep getting better every week. By no means were we perfect.”
The Jets struggled in the first half, going 0-for-5 on third downs and their first quarter play was abysmal. They had more penalty yards (20) than total yards (15). The Browns, now 0-5 on the season and 1-23 in their last 24 games, helped matters as kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two first-half field goals. His last miss, wide left from 39 yards with 31 seconds left in the first half set the stage for a super-quick decision.
Bowles decided against taking a knee and instead opted to see what the offense could accomplish. Josh McCown moved the Jets from their own 29 to the Browns’ 39 in 30 seconds. Chandler Catanzaro then hit a franchise-record 57-yard field goal as time expired to give the Jets a 3-0 halftime lead.
“We felt we had an opportunity to get something in the half,” receiver Jermaine Kearse said. “I think at first we were going to take a knee and just go into the half. I like the aggressiveness from our OC [offensive coordinator John Morton] and our head coach to try to see if we could get something out of it and we just executed that situation perfectly.”
The lead would be short lived as the Browns gained their first lead of the season, 7-3, when backup quarterback Kevin Hogan threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end David Njoku with 9:23 to play in the third.
The Browns, who benched starter DeShone Kizer in the second half, lost the lead in the third quarter but had a chance to steal momentum away from the Jets early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 10-7 and facing a fourth-and-2 from the Jets’ 4, coach Hue Jackson decided to go for it instead of attempting a tying field goal. The decision backfired as running back Isaiah Crowell didn’t come close to picking up the two yards.
Said defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson said, “Defense made a big stop and got the ball back to the offense and let them make plays.”
That they did. The Jets followed up the defensive stop with their best drive of the game — and longest scoring drive of the season — as they marched 97 yards. McCown was 6-for-6 on the drive, capping it off with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Kearse for a 17-7 lead.
“Every guy made a play here and there,” McCown said of the drive. “Eric Tomlinson makes a huge catch, [Jeremy] Kerley makes a huge catch on third down. Those things were big for us. That drive was huge.”
The Jets won a game with season-lows in rushing (34) and total yards (212). It struggled to stop the run (140) and failed to keep either Browns quarterback in the pocket as the duo totaled 59 yards on keepers and scrambles.
Sometimes NFL teams win unsightly games, that’s how it is. For these Jets, the expectations were low. An 0-16 season was quite possibly in their future, many predicted.
The present is a first-place tie in the division. So don’t talk to these Jets about tanking. Talk to them about playing for first place.
“I think that’s one of the worst things ever, a team is going to tank,” cornerback Buster Skrine said. “You got people out here getting paid and people want to keep their jobs so you find a way to do it.”