The New York Jets (5-7) have slipped to the fringe of the AFC playoff picture, but coach Rex Ryan is hopeful that having a healthy receiving corps for one of the few times all season will help the team evaluate embattled rookie quarterback Geno Smith over the final four games.
Wide receiver Jeremy Kerley returned to practice this week and was listed as probable Friday, making it likely he will return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a dislocated left elbow against the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 3. Despite missing four games this season, Kerley continues to lead the Jets with 28 catches for 347 yards.
"I think Jeremy is a tremendous player and I think he is underrated as maybe in the public's (view). But he's a difference maker for us. He's a guy that can get separation against man coverage. He's got great hands. (He's) precise with his route running. He's elusive. Even like last year when he averaged like almost 15 yards a catch as a slot receiver. That doesn't happen very often so it shows you he's got that kind of ability and certainly he's a difference maker for us."
How many snaps Kerley and wide receiver Santonio Holmes (hamstring) will play remains to be determined, but the important part for Ryan is both will be in the lineup at the same time against the Oakland Raiders.
"We don't want to play (Holmes) 60 snaps when all of a sudden now we're worried about it," Ryan said. "So we've got to be smart and we will be. But again, it's not like it's going to be last week where he played three plays. He's going to play."
Six of the Jets' losses have been by at least 13 points. Only one other team, the 4-9 Jacksonville Jaguars, have more such losses (seven).
Ryan benched Smith at halftime of the 23-3 loss to the Dolphins last Sunday, but Smith will start against the Raiders at MetLife Stadium this Sunday after backup Matt Simms didn't fare much better in the final two quarters against Miami.
"We don't make excuses or anything else, but obviously having your top guys out there healthy, I think makes a huge difference," Ryan said. "We had those conversations and to me it's like, judge us moving forward. And look, you're going to judge us anyways up until this point and you should and I understand it. But, let's see how we close this thing out when our guys are healthy."
The Jets lack reliable deep speed, but Smith has been struggling most with his decision making in going through his progressions. Having a possession receiver like Kerley who can gain quick separation could be a big asset.
"I'm not saying he's Wes Welker, but (he is) similar like a slot receiver who can shake you, burst and get open just like that," Ryan said. "He has some of that ability."
SERIES HISTORY: 39th regular-season meeting, Raiders lead series, 21-15-2. The two teams have split four playoff meetings. The Jets have faced only one other team, the Colts, as often as they've faced the Raiders in the postseason. The Raiders won the most recent game between the teams on Sept. 25, 2011, when Darren McFadden ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns to lead host Oakland to a 34-24 win. Mark Sanchez was 27-of-44 for 369 yards, two touchdowns and one interception for the Jets. This will be the first time the Jets host Oakland since moving into MetLife Stadium in 2010.
--Any doubt that Kellen Winslow's tenure with the Jets would be of the "one-and-done" variety was almost certainly erased this week, when the mercurial tight end Tweeted his prediction that Denver and New England would play in the AFC Championship Game in late January.
Few would argue with Winslow's pick -- Denver and New England are almost certainly going to be the top two seeds in the AFC playoff field -- but the timing of the Tweet was questionable, at best. As poorly as the Jets have played since coming off their bye - they've lost three in a row by a combined 79-20 -- they are still only one game behind Baltimore and Miami in the middling race for the final AFC wild card.
The odds aren't good that the Jets snap out of their funk and make a dramatic run at a playoff spot. But Winslow's comments certainly don't set the right tone in a locker room that features 30 players with three years or less of NFL experience.
"Got to clean up his comments," coach Rex Ryan said Wednesday of Winslow.
This week wasn't the first time Winslow annoyed his employers. Winslow complained about his playing time in early October, right before he was suspended four games by the NFL for violating its PED policies. And after the 23-3 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, Winslow said the Jets' problems stemmed from practice -- which in turn led Ryan to remind reporters Monday that Winslow regularly misses at least one practice a week due to his chronic knee issues.
--In a span of three weeks, the Jets have gone from fighting for the playoffs to angling for draft position.
Of course, even at 5-7 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the Jets aren't yet eliminated from postseason contention. But given their inability to win most tiebreakers -- the Jets have lost to fellow second wild-card contenders Baltimore, Miami, Tennessee and Pittsburgh and are just 2-7 in the AFC -- the Jets almost certainly have to run the table in order to have even an outside shot at the playoffs.
And so, just like last year, all December is likely to determine for the Jets is where they draft in the spring. The Jets, one of six 5-7 teams in the NFL, are currently occupying the 11th slot in the draft -- two spots later than they drafted in April.
An unexpected playoff run would drop the Jets to at least 21st in the draft order. But with games coming up against the 4-8 Raiders and Browns, the Jets could surge well into the top 10 and flirt with the top five if their current downward spiral lasts the rest of the season -- especially since two of their four remaining games are against 4-8 teams: Oakland this weekend and Cleveland on Dec. 22.
BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- The number of three-game losing streaks the Jets have endured under head coach Rex Ryan. The Jets have had at least one three-game losing streak in every year under Ryan except 2010. However, the Jets have never lost four in a row during Ryan's tenure.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "There's a lot of things that are hidden that he does extremely well." -- Jets head coach Rex Ryan on safety Ed Reed, who has been burned twice in the last two weeks and whose teams this season are 0-10 when he plays.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Nobody connected to the Jets had a good day last Sunday, when the Jets basically fell out of the wild card race with a 23-3 loss to the Dolphins. But no one had a worse day than general manager John Idzik, whose inaugural draft class contributed -- in all the wrong ways -- to yet another lopsided defeat.
Quarterback Geno Smith, the Jets' second-round pick, was 4-of-10 for 29 yards and an interception in the first half before he was pulled at halftime. Smith has one touchdown and 11 interceptions in his last six-and-a-half games.
Cornerback Dee Milliner, the first of the Jets' two first-round picks, was beaten repeatedly by slot receiver Brian Hartline in the first half before he missed a tackle on Mike Wallace's 28-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter. Milliner was subsequently benched as well, the third time he's been benched in the middle of a game.
Guard Brian Winters, a third-round pick, wasn't benched, but he probably should have been after surrendering two sacks. Winters has given up a mind-boggling 19 sacks in just eight starts.
Offensive linemen Oday Aboushi (fifth round) and Will Campbell (sixth round) didn't factor into the defeat. In fact, they haven't factored into a single game this year: The two players, both of whom looked like practice-squad candidates at best during training camp, made the final 53-man roster but have been inactive for all 12 games.
All caveats, of course, apply about how a draft cannot be properly evaluated for several years. But after three-quarters of a season, only two Idzik draft picks -- second first-rounder Sheldon Richardson, who is vying for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and seventh-rounder Tommy Bohanon, who has been solid as the Jets' starting fullback -- look even remotely ready to become long-term contributors. Such return on drafts will only lengthen the rebuilding process Idzik inherited in January and make it more likely that someone else is eventually tasked with the job.
--WR Darius Reynaud signed with the Jets on Tuesday. He will replace Josh Cribbs, who was placed on injured reserve in a corresponding move, as the Jets' kickoff and punt returner. Reynaud scored three special teams touchdowns last season for the Titans but was cut by Tennessee on Oct. 21 after struggling through the first six games of this year. In the season opener Sept. 8, he accidentally took a knee in the end zone after fielding a kickoff at the 1-yard line. A few weeks later, he fumbled a punt that was returned for a touchdown by the 49ers. Reynaud has averaged 22.5 yards per kickoff return and 9.7 yards per punt return in five NFL seasons. He has also played for the Vikings and Giants.
--LB Tim Fugger was signed to the practice squad on Wednesday. Fugger, who has yet to appear in a regular-season game, hasn't been with an NFL team since he was cut by the Cardinals in July. Fugger, a Vanderbilt graduate, was selected by the Colts in the seventh round of the 2013 draft and spent the final two months of last season on the Cardinals' practice squad.
--LB Danny Lansanah was signed by the Buccaneers off the Jets' practice squad on Wednesday. Lansanah was cut by the Jets on Sept. 1, re-signed a day later, was inactive for the season opener on Sept. 8 and cut a day later by the Jets, who ended up re-signing him to the practice squad on Sept. 16. Lansanah hasn't played in a regular-season game since 2008, when he appeared in five contests for the Packers.
GAME PLAN: Where do the Jets go offensively now that their bag of tricks is completely empty? Of course, there weren't many choices in said bag, but with Matt Simms failing to seize the starting quarterback job in the second half of last Sunday's 23-3 loss to the Dolphins and Wildcat quarterback Josh Cribbs suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg have no option but to turn back to Geno Smith and hope that a half on the bench cured everything that ailed him. The break surely didn't achieve that, nor did it provide Smith any reliable weapons in the passing game. Still, it will behoove Mornhinweg to once again dial up a pass-heavy game plan in the first half in hopes Smith can establish some confidence and open up some running lanes for Chris Ivory and/or Bilal Powell. And if that fails? Maybe the Jets can find one more trick in the bag and alternate quarterbacks every series.
The easy thing to say is the offensively deficient Jets will need to create a score on defense or special teams in order to win a battle of also-rans. Alas, actually doing that will be far more difficult. New kickoff/punt returner Darius Reynaud scored three special teams touchdowns last year but hasn't played since he was cut by the Titans on Oct. 21. Defensively, the Jets have scored just one touchdown all year -- and Antonio Allen, who returned an interception for a score against the Patriots, has been chained to the bench since Ed Reed arrived. Creating a big play against Raiders starting quarterback Matt McGloin will be difficult. While McGloin is limited physically, he gets rid of the ball quickly (he's taken just two sacks all season) and has thrown two interceptions in 109 pass attempts. The Jets will need to limit Oakland's damage to between the 20s and force the Raiders to settle for field-goal attempts by the suddenly unreliable Sebastian Janikowski, who has missed seven attempts this year -- as many as he missed the previous two years combined.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Jets C Nick Mangold vs. Raiders NT Pat Sims -- Given the anemic state of the Jets' passing game and the trends established by the Raiders, who are 4-0 this year when allowing less than 100 yards rushing and 0-8 when surrendering at least 100 yards rushing, there's little doubt this game will be decided in the trenches. Chris Ivory's two 100-yard rushing efforts came in the Jets' two most recent wins, but he's also averaged 5.4 yards a carry during the Jets' three-game losing streak. As much as the Jets need Mangold to win the individual battle with Sims, though, they need to keep the game close in order to give Mangold and Ivory a chance to wear down Oakland's interior. Ivory had just 36 carries in the last three games, two more than he had against New England.
--Jets CB Antonio Cromartie vs. Raiders WR Denarius Moore or WR Andre Holmes -- The Raiders don't know yet who their No. 1 receiver will be on Sunday -- Moore has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury -- but Cromartie will have his hands full with whoever lines up across from him. Moore is averaging 15.4 yards per catch this season and has six touchdown catches of 30 yards or longer in three NFL seasons, including 73- and 39-yarders this year. Holmes, a third-year player, enjoyed a breakout game against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, when he had seven catches for 136 yards. He is averaging a robust 20.1 yards per reception this year. The Raiders aren't likely to get much going on the ground, especially if No. 1 back Rashad Jennings is out because of the concussion he suffered on Thanksgiving, so Cromartie containing Moore and/or Holmes and avoiding the big play could be the difference in what is likely to be a low-scoring game.
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