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Jets' Rhodes improves, escapes from doghouse

New York Jets safety Kerry Rhodes (25) and

New York Jets safety Kerry Rhodes (25) and safety Jim Leonhard (36) combine on a tackle of San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (85) in the second half. (January 17, 2010) Credit: AP

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - When Kerry Rhodes rolled off Philip Rivers in San Diego and jumped in the air to celebrate, it wasn't just a key sack in a playoff game that he was embracing. Rather, it was a kind of welcome home party for the safety whose season has seen some rather unexpected pitfalls.

Rhodes was supposed to be the Ed Reed of Rex Ryan's defense in New York, a playmaking machine who could swarm to the ball, create turnovers and change the flow of games. When that didn't happen, Rhodes wound up demoted from the base defense in Week 11.

He responded to the situation with two interceptions against the Panthers, and last week he had a pair of key plays in the win over the Chargers. Not only did he have one of the two sacks on Rivers, he also recovered the critical onside kick that helped the Jets seal the win and advance to Sunday's AFC title game.

"It happens sometimes in this league," Rhodes said. "You play for however many years and you have great success and you have - I won't even say a bad year, just an up and down year - and people think differently. You just have to go out and know in yourself that you can get the job done."

That's easier said than done. And Rhodes, who normally needs a towel to wipe away the confidence that drips off him, didn't take that approach at first. He called the situation "humbling" and teammates saw a more low-key player than they were used to seeing.

"You could tell he was down and frustrated about it, but he responded well," said safety Eric Smith, who started those two games during Rhodes' demotion. "He started working a lot harder and things paid off. He's made a lot of plays since then."

Guard Brandon Moore has the locker next to Rhodes' and observed how the tumultuous season affected his neighbor.

"I never told him this, but I was really impressed with how professionally and how well he handled something that some players could have handled a different way," Moore said. "It showed a lot of maturity, a lot of confidence in himself. He's a confident guy, so that helps."

Smith said he thinks that the coaching staff, in making the decision to demote Rhodes, hoped to light a spark in him. But not every player responds that way.

"Some guys might tank it," Smith said.

Rhodes didn't. And he basically admitted yesterday that he didn't give up because he knew he was auditioning for 31 other teams that might want him if his future is not with the Jets.

"Even when things like that happen, you never know at the end of the day what can come from it," he said. "You want to play your best and continue to show . . . other people who may take interest in you that you can still get the job done. There are a couple of things that can happen from that situation."

Rhodes said he no longer is thinking about his future because he's focused on his present.

"I'm happy right here," he said. "We have a big thing in front of us, we're in the final four. Right now I'm just worried about this team and trying to help this team win."

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