Sam Darnold got a lot of laughs two weeks ago when he said "If we get on a roll here and we win out, we've got a chance at the playoffs." The Jets had just beaten the Giants for their second win of the season. So it was ridiculous, unlikely, and somewhat comical that he really seemed to believed it.
A lot fewer people were laughing on Sunday, though, after the Jets demolished the Oakland Raiders 34-3, and Darnold said the playoffs are "in the back of my head."
It is still a longshot, of course. It's probably still ridiculous and unlikely. But the Jets are 4-7 now and on the fast track to 6-7 with the winless Bengals (0-11) and the awful Dolphins (2-9) up next on their schedule. The standings show they are just two games back in the race for the AFC's second wild-card spot, albeit with six teams in line ahead of them.
So the back of Darnold's head is where this fantasy belongs for now -- something to dream about, as long as he mostly keeps that to himself.
But this sure will be an interesting conversation in 2 ½ weeks if the Jets really do head to Baltimore for a Thursday night game on Dec. 12 with a 6-7 record, riding a five-game winning streak, and perhaps even just one game out of that playoff spot.
Until then, it's still an improbable dream. Here's a look at their narrow path:
First things first
Jets fans are braced for the next two games, because a loss at Cincinnati or home against the Dolphins would be the ultimate "Same Old Jets" thing. The Jets need these two games just to prove they've turned a corner with their franchise, that they're mentally tough enough to avoid a letdown. If they lose either of these games, they don't deserve a spot in the playoff race, no matter what the math says.
Beat Baltimore - This is the big one
The Ravens are 8-2 and a legitimate Super Bowl contender and their quarterback, Lamar Jackson, is an MVP candidate. The Jets could be, should be rolling into this game but will still be big underdogs. The Raiders were a good team, but the Ravens are an even bigger step up in class. Win this game and the Jets will have serious momentum for the final few weeks of the season, not to mention a huge boost in confidence. It's probably unlikely, but strange things do tend to happen on Thursday nights.
Get help … lots and lots of help
The Jets are two games back, yes, but currently four teams are in a tie for that last AFC spot -- the Steelers (6-5), Colts (6-5), Titans (6-5) and Raiders (6-5). The Browns (5-6) and the Jaguars (4-7) are ahead of the Jets, too, and the Chargers (4-7) are right there with them. The Jets can only get to nine wins, which means that if any of these teams get to 10, it's over (assuming the 8-3 Buffalo Bills secure the first wild-card spot). The road becomes tough if any of them even gets to nine -- especially the Browns or Jaguars, who own the tie breaker since they already beat the Jets.
Beware the Browns
They have a really easy schedule the rest of the way. They get the Bengals twice and the Cardinals, and that should be enough to get them to eight wins. If they also beat either the Steelers or Ravens, it's game over for the Jets.
If the Jets were to win out and go 9-7, they'd finish with a 6-6 record in the AFC. Conference record is the tie-breaker when there is no head-to-head game, so it would come into play if they're tied with the Steelers, Colts or Titans, or if they're stuck in any three-way tie. The problem there is the Steelers and Colts already have five conference wins and the Titans already have four. If the Steelers or Titans get to 9-7 they'll have more conference wins than the Jets. The Colts can get to 9-7 with only six conference wins if they win the right games. In that case it would come down to a common games tiebreaker -- a tiebreaker the Jets could actually win.
The easiest road
Root for a tie with the Raiders. Let them be the team that goes 3-2 down the stretch and ties the Jets at 9-7, so the Jets can get in by virtue of their win on Sunday. … Otherwise, given their awful tie-breaker situation, their best bet is to tie with the Colts at 9-7, as long as the Colts lose at least one of their games to the Titans or Jaguars (If they lose both, in this scenario, the Jets are in!). Of course, that would require the Steelers and Titans going 2-3 or worse, the Browns going 3-2 or worse and the Jaguars not winning out, too. That's not crazy.
The bottom line
The Jets just need to take care of their own business. The playoff scenarios are unpredictable this early, and they are going to swing wildly over the final few weeks. It's going to look a lot more realistic if they come out of Baltimore with a win and a .500 record. If they don't, it'll look like a longshot no matter what.
But it's not impossible. Improbable, yes. But the math says the Jets are in it. And while they need a lot of things to happen, none of them are absurd. It's all possible, as long as the Jets don't lose again.