On the Brinck: Why are the New York Jets winning games?

by Nathan Albrinck | 10/13/17 1:35am

If I told you the New York Jets and New England Patriots would be battling for the American Football Conference East lead during their Week 6 matchup on Oct. 15, you would have laughed and called me crazy. But they are, so how did we get here?

The Jets opened the 2017 National Football League season in September at 1000-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, according to the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. The Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, all of which came into the season with better odds, are winless after five weeks, while the Jets are 3-2 heading into Week 6. By contrast, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots entered the season with 11-4 odds to repeat as champions.

The Jets reached the AFC Conference Championship in back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010 but haven’t reached the playoffs since. After a 4-12 season in 2014, the Jets fired Rex Ryan and signed Todd Bowles to a four-year deal. In Bowles’ opening act, the Jets finished 10-6 and finished second in the AFC East behind the Patriots. A year later, after the best season of his career, Ryan Fitzpatrick returned to old form and so did the Jets, who went 5-11, a record that looked almost unattainable heading into their 2017 campaign.

After releasing wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker and losing Quincy Enunwa to a season-ending neck injury, only Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and Charone Peake had ever caught a pass in the NFL, and only Anderson and Kearse had caught touchdowns. The Jets also released veterans Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold, two faces of the organization in recent years. Mangold, once described as the best center in the NFL, had a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career with the Jets, earning seven Pro Bowl appearances in 11 seasons. At the quarterback position, the Jets brought in Josh McCown, now playing for the eighth team in his career, to battle for the starting spot in Fitzpatrick’s absence and mature young talents Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. The Jets’ offseason purge of every household name on their roster shows their commitment to a full-scale rebuild in the coming years.

The Jets were projected to be so bad that FiveThirtyEight printed an article discussing the chances they go 0-16. The article concluded the Jets would need to be incredibly unlucky to go 0-16, despite the shortcomings of their roster. And so far, the Jets haven’t been, now riding a three-game win streak that includes two three-point wins.

But based on the caliber of their wins — over a Miami Dolphins team that has scored 41 points all season, a Jacksonville Jaguars team led by Blake Bortles and the Cleveland Browns (who don’t need any introduction) — most would argue the Jets are still bad, and most would probably be right. They have given up the eighth most yards in the league and have put up the seventh fewest. What have they been doing right? Putting away their wins.

They beat Jay Cutler-led Miami 20-6 in Week 3 to put all talks of a winless season behind them. They followed up Miami with a 23-20 overtime win over the Jaguars, who are leaning on Leonard Fournette and a healthy defense to carry Bortles. The Jets’ win over Jacksonville wasn’t exactly impressive, but it certainly is the best on their resume. New York took advantage of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to set up Chandler Catanzaro for a 41-yard game-winning field goal. Last week, Cleveland’s second-round draft pick DeShone Kizer turned the ball over twice — one an interception, one a fumble — inside the Jets’ five-yard line to hand New York their third consecutive win.

The Jets are heading into their Sunday matchup looking to ride their momentum and shock the football world. ESPN’s Football Power Index pegs them at a 17 percent chance to do so. Tom Brady is playing great football. He leads the league in passing yards and is third in the league in passer rating, among passers with more than one completion. His offense has scored the third most points in the league. Unfortunately for New England, though, Brady can’t play defense, too. The Pats have given up the most yards in the league (by far) and the second most points.

To beat the Pats, the Jets have to do the small things well. They have a better-than-average running game, putting up 111.4 yards per game. McCown was second in the NFL in Week 5 in average snap-to-throw time and leads the league in air-yards-to-sticks on third down. Though they are minute stats, they mean the Jets are throwing the ball quickly and past the first-down marker. They are moving the ball, despite their star-less offense. On defense, the Jets have over-performed so far and are 11th in stopping their opponents on third down and 10th in turnovers. To have any chance of beating the Patriots, the Jets will need their defense to step up on the big plays and give their offense the ball.

Statistics still don’t favor the Jets’ season. They have a 1.3 percent chance to make the playoffs according to ESPN, up from their league low 0.6 percent chance to start the season. If they can pull off a win on Sunday against their division-rival Patriots, their odds are sure to take a big jump.