FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Remember when even some of the most diehard Jets fans were openly rooting for a full-tank, 0-16 season? And back then, even those who couldn't bring themselves to openly root against their team knew they'd be pleased if the Jets stumbled into the No. 1 overall pick.
Now they are 3-2, getting ready to face the hated New England Patriots, with first place in the AFC East on the line. The "tank" appears empty. The bandwagon is filling up.
But this is still a rebuilding Jets team facing the defending Super Bowl champions. Are the Jets really good enough to get this done?
Probably not. They're still probably much more likely to finish 5-11 than 11-5. Just don't tell them that. Todd Bowles has his young Jets believing.
And it sure sounds like they believe they have a chance.
"The confidence is there. The swagger is there," said Jets defensive end Leonard Williams. "I think that's what I like most: The swagger. We're jumping around with each other, we're having fun and we're playing fast."
"I'd say (our confidence) has risen a lot," added linebacker Darron Lee. "I mean it's been going up week by week, even with the 0-2 start."
That, of course, was three straight wins ago -- a remarkable achievement in itself for a team that some thought might not win three games all season. Still, a reality check is needed: These Jets are hardly a juggernaut. In fact, their unexpected three-game winning streak has exposed plenty of flaws.
The Jets were horribly sloppy in their 17-14 win in Cleveland on Sunday, and really only won because the rebuilding Browns are much worse. One week earlier, they barely beat an ugly-looking Jaguars team in overtime, committing key mistakes that nearly threw a fantastic performance by their running backs away.
What the Jets showed in those games is that against weaker teams they can have good moments, but they are still very much on that low level. They make too many mistakes in big situations. Their defense (25th in the NFL) isn't quite what it used to be. And their passing offense (25th in the NFL, 189.4 yards per game) is as bad as everyone thought.
They are not good enough to dethrone the beasts of the AFC East. And staring at a schedule that includes the Falcons, Bucs, Panthers, Chiefs, Broncos, and Saints over the final nine games, they'll be lucky to avoid double-digit losses.
That's the reality. But so is this: They are at home on Sunday, on equal footing record-wise with the Pats. If they can somehow squeeze this one win out, and be 4-2 heading into Miami next Sunday, it will change the entire tenor of this season. And if that happens, can anyone really rule anything -- including a playoff berth -- out?
After all, nobody thought even a game like this was possible.
"Everybody else thought that we wouldn't be here, but not the people inside the building," Williams said. "We always were going into every game playing hard and preparing the same way. That's something that we've been harping on this week - don't get too high for it and don't get to low for any other game. It's staying consistent, keep doing us and preparing the same way. Just keep doing us."
The Jets have worked overtime to insist that this game, against the defending champs, is just like any other game. Of course, deep down, they can't possibly believe that. But they do believe that the Patriots aren't invulnerable. They have the NFL's worst defense (giving up 447.2 yards per game), the NFL's worst pass defense, and they're giving up 28.4 points per game (third worst in the league).
The Patriots do have the NFL's best offense (419.4 yards) and passing offense (320.4) and rank third in scoring (29.6), but their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback has taken so many hits behind a questionable offensive line that he reportedly has a sprained (non-throwing) shoulder and needed to take practice off on Tuesday and Wednesday.
OK, it's probably not smart to bet against the Patriots figuring all that out and turning their season around -- especially against a Jets team that suddenly feels revived and is eager to test its mettle against the big kid on the block. And the reality remains that this game is likely a big reality check. It probably would be considered a small victory for the Jets just to make it competitive without being blown out.
That kind of thinking, though, is so two months ago, back when Sam Darnold Jets jerseys were all the rage. The Jets franchise may still have a lot of rebuilding to do, but this Jets team is sensing an opportunity that nobody expected them to have.
So hey, why not? Haven't stranger things happened? And if nothing else, isn't this much more fun than watching a team tank?
It's a good bet their fans think so, even the ones who were hoping for 0-16, which is why the Jets are expecting a raucous and wild scene at the Meadowlands on Sunday.
"I expect it to be a packed house," Lee said. "I expect it to be loud."