CINCINNATI — Rex Ryan beat his chest earlier in the week, proclaiming the Jets should be the Super Bowl favorites, explaining how the oddsmakers were totally wrong in giving his team the worst chance of any of the 12 squads vying for the Lombardi Trophy.
He also kept growing tired of all the talk about the Jets backing into the playoffs and got a bit annoyed at people saying the Jets came through the postseason’s back door because the last two teams they beat to solidify their playoff spot had little incentive.
Well, even though it’s not his style, the Jets’ brash coach shouldn’t have to do much now to get his point across to the non-believers. Yesterday’s solid 24-14 triumph over the Bengals before a crowd of 63,686 at Paul Brown Stadium in an AFC wild-card matchup — the Jets’ first playoff win since a three-point victory over San Diego four years ago — probably put more than a few on notice that the fifth-seeded Jets are a force.
The Jets (10-7) will find out who they play today. Should the Patriots beat the Ravens, the Jets would travel to Indianapolis for a date with the Colts on Saturday. If the Ravens win, they’d head for San Diego to meet the Chargers next Sunday.
“We’re a good football team,” Ryan said. “People can say we backed in or whatever. I don’t care how we got in. We are going to be a tough out. We’re going into every game thinking we can win it.”
Said linebacker Calvin Pace: “Hopefully, the naysayers, they start believing. If they don’t believe, we are going to start showing them and proving them wrong.”
Behind their league-leading rushing attack, led by rookie Shonn Greene, an extremely efficient performance by rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and a steady enough game from their top-ranked defense, the Jets outscored Cincinnati 24-7 in the final three quarters, settling down after falling behind 7-0 with 7:07 left in the first quarter.
Greene rushed for 135 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown, in 21 carries, and Sanchez was cool in his first postseason start. The quarterback shook off the glaring national television spotlight to turn in his third straight game without a turnover. He completed 12 of 15 attempts for 182 yards and a touchdown with an astronomical rating of 139.4, looking more like a veteran than his Southern California idol and USC buddy, Carson Palmer.
“This is when you need to turn it on,” Sanchez said, “and this was a great opportunity to do that.”
The Jets held a 21-7 cushion after Thomas Jones’ 9-yard touchdown run with 2:18 left in the third quarter. They were in control until the Bengals made things interesting with a lightning-quick, two-play, 56-yard drive. Cedric Benson, who gouged the Jets for 169 yards, scored untouched on a 47-yard run to bring Cincinnati within 21-14 with 11:04 remaining.
But the Jets answered with a big-time drive of their own, aided by a critical catch by Dustin Keller on second-and-8 from their 34. Keller caught a short pass from Sanchez, cut up the field and rumbled 43 yards to the Cincinnati 23. Jay Feely kicked a 20-yard field goal six plays later, providing the Jets with a 10-point bulge with 5:47 to go.
“It was huge,” Keller said, “to get that field goal and put us up two scores and give us a little bit more breathing room.”
“That was the turning point,” Sanchez said. “We wanted to score a touchdown, but for Jay to come in and kick a field goal like that, it’s hard to sustain a long drive and come away with points. That’s what we’ve really fixed since Atlanta, since a couple of games earlier in the season.
“We’re not beating ourselves in these wins, so it’s been great.”
So the Jets are one win away from playing for the AFC title, two victories shy of vaulting themselves to the once unthinkable: playing in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami on Feb. 7.
“Man, we can beat anybody that we have to play,” linebacker Calvin Pace said. “The key to us winning and continuing to keep this season going is not beating ourselves, and playing efficient football, not making it easy for other people defensively, getting stronger. The sky’s the limit. I really believe that in my heart and I’m sure everybody in this locker room believes that. We’ve just got to keep it going, man.”