FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Sooner or later, the answers to life's big questions usually get reduced to the basics. From the moment Rex Ryan took charge of the Jets, he said the offensive line was the strongest part of the team, and when it became clear he was going to start rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, well, you knew who was going to be responsible not only for the kid's well-being but for the success of the team.
"We've been going on that mantra since April,'' first-time All-Pro center Nick Mangold said.
As if to spell it out in unmistakable terms, the five-man unit of Mangold, guards Alan Faneca and Brandon Moore and tackles D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Damien Woody paved the way for 190 rushing yards and controlled the ball for 38:46 in Sanchez's debut win at Houston. But Sanchez made a bunch of big plays to win the next two games, seducing everybody with his surprising success, and the Jets got away from the winning formula as their 3-0 start dissolved into a 4-6 pit of despair.
Not even back-to-back 300-yard rushing games could pull them out of it because they lost one when Sanchez threw five interceptions. "We knew it was a process,'' Woody said. "You're in two different worlds. You've got a veteran team that's ready to win now, but you're also trying to break in a rookie quarterback.
"The biggest thing Mark learned was that you hold the livelihood of a lot of people in your hands when you hold that football. Now we've settled. We know the identity and Mark understands that. We're kind of on a roll offensively now.''
It took nearly half a season, but the Jets finally got back to the basics, winning five of their last six in the regular season to make the playoffs and then steamrollering the Bengals in a wild-card playoff win last week in Cincinnati. During that seven-game stretch, they handed the ball to running backs Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene, averaged 42.6 rushes per game for 184.6 yards and controlled the ball an average of 34:20.
That's the formula the Jets are taking to San Diego on Sunday, knowing they must keep the ball away from the Chargers' explosive offense as long as possible to have a chance of winning and advancing to the AFC Championship Game.
The Jets' offensive line dominated the Bengals the past two weeks, and they hope to do the same to a Chargers defense that is using its third nose tackle and has had trouble stopping the run.
It's no secret what the Jets are going to do, but they don't stop running even when teams stack the box at the line of scrimmage with eight, nine and even 10 defenders. "Last week in Cincinnati, they were geared up to stop the run,'' Moore said. "They got us a little bit the first two series, and they were high-fiving each other and whooping and hollering.
"As the game wears on, you hear them arguing with each other. You hear, 'Who's got this guy? Give me the call! Give me the call!' You hear them chattering with each other instead of celebrating. I think that's one of the biggest signs that you're having your way with a defense.''
The addition of offensive line coach Bill Callahan and free agents Faneca and Woody two years ago accelerated the maturation of the Jets' offensive line. Moore signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and Ferguson and Mangold were the Jets' twin first-round picks in the 2006 draft. They've started 33 consecutive games together, the NFL's longest streak.
Their regard for Callahan, the former coach of the Raiders and Nebraska, is unquestioned. "He has an answer for pretty much everything,'' Woody said. "He's the best in the business.''
Callahan likes to joke around as much as his players, so the meeting room isn't uptight and the camaraderie carries over off the field.
"All the wives get along really well,'' Moore said of the four married guys. "Every now and then, someone will have a get-together over at his house. Nick had a little wine-tasting party the other day. Sometimes we go out to dinner. We eat breakfast together most days. We have extra meetings, a lot of time together to build that bond.''
On the field, perennial Pro Bowler Faneca and Woody have seen everything there is to see from a defense. Plugging Faneca at left guard between Ferguson and Mangold has paid big dividends.
"The biggest thing is communication, the way Alan sees things and relays it to Nick or Brick,'' Woody said. "In my career, I've played alongside people that weren't very good, and it will bring your play down. You see Nick and Brick elevating their play and the whole offensive line in general. I think we're the best offensive line in the league.''
Even the most passionate football fans have scant understanding of the complexity of offensive line play, but linemen are in meetings longer than anybody on the team except quarterbacks. The camera focuses on the quarterback changing plays at the line of scrimmage, but in front of him, the linemen are making their calls.
"They do say I'm the vocal one, but that comes with the center position,'' Mangold said. "As different situations come up, different people take charge.''
"There's a lot of talk, small nuances,'' Faneca said. "There could be a play where I'm thinking about something extra. I know Nick's got this handled, but I can concentrate on the safety coming down over here. Or maybe I can concentrate on a corner blitz, and boom, we can change the blocking scheme.''
At this point, the Jets' offensive linemen have so much shared experience that they often know what to do without the extra chatter. "The less you have to speak, the quicker you can execute your blocks,'' said Ferguson, a Freeport product and the only unmarried starter. "You don't have to say, 'Hey, go here.' Because you've run it so many times, you can operate quicker, and it makes it harder on the defenders.''
The Jets have gotten into such a physical, run-first mentality during the past seven weeks, Woody said, that anything less than 150 to 200 yards rushing at San Diego would feel like a failure. Although run-blocking takes a greater physical toll than pass-blocking, the Jets' offensive linemen welcome the pain.
"It simplifies things,'' Moore said. "You can be more physical, impose your will on people a little bit more and wear them down. The last few weeks, we've been running so much that when you get back into dropback [pass] protection, you're like, 'Wow. Now, how do I set again?' I've never had that experience before, but we enjoy it. You really like to be able to make that impact on the defense.''
Funny, but the biggest impact the Jets' offensive line has made isn't on opposing defenses. It's been on their own locker room. Sanchez, the defense, the coaches, all the Jets can lean on the offensive line.
"They provide a confidence,'' tight end Ben Hartsock said. "None of the offensive line guys are tremendously outspoken, but every time we line up in the huddle or get in a tight situation, they're a foundation of the entire team. That's soothing for Mark and for the team as a whole that we've got veteran, reliable guys that can handle any situation.''