For all their dominance, the Broncos are buoyed by a 38-year-old quarterback with failing legs. Their chief rival for the No. 1 seed, undefeated Kansas City, is not nearly as imposing as their record, despite a No. 1 scoring defense and Jamaal Charles’ MVP campaign. The Patriots, when healthy, look like the AFC’s best team, but they won’t be 100 percent any time this season. Meanwhile, the Colts were just worked in their own building by a Brian Schottenheimer and Kellen Clemens-led offense and the Bengals continue to ebb and flow on Andy Dalton’s schizophrenic arm (and head).
That’s to say nothing of the five-team jumble racing for the No. 6 seed, only one of which is above .500 entering Monday night’s Dolphins-Bucs suckfest.
All of this is good for the Jets, one of the pieces that looks, at first glance, like it probably doesn’t belong. Despite the rookie quarterback, the lack of offensive weapons and a secondary that has struggled for long stretches this season, the Jets are a game up on any of the other middling, half-complete and clearly-flawed wild card contenders.
That speaks as much to the Jets’ surprising season as it does the rest of the AFC. While they’ve been far from consistent, they’ve won when they needed to win. For all the talk about how the Jets haven’t won two straight, it’s important to note they haven’t lost two in a row, either. That’s math, folks.
As the Jets rested their legs this weekend, they watched their path to the postseason get a little bit easier. Fellow contenders Tennessee, Oakland, San Diego and Buffalo all lost. The Raiders and Bills are all but done and the Titans lost their starting quarterback again – this time likely for the season.
Assuming Fitzmagic can’t rally the Titans, that leaves the Jets, Browns, Chargers, Ravens and Dolphins fighting for that final spot.
It would be easy, or at the very least possible, to make an argument for any of the five teams. The Browns have a defense that can play with almost any offense, are well coached and have an offense that features two game-breaking targets in the passing attack and a strong offensive line. San Diego has the best quarterback in the AFC not named Peyton Manning this season, not to mention a punishing ball carrier, an offensive rookie of the year candidate and one of the biggest mismatches in the game. The Ravens and Dolphins, for all of their many faults, each have imposing pass rushers and quarterbacks that can make big plays if given more than 2.5 seconds to throw the ball.
Although the NFL these days is a quarterback-centric league, the Jets -- with their mistake-prone rookie quarterback -- appear to be the most complete team and likely are the strongest contender for the No. 6 seed through 10 weeks of play. They have as dominant a front seven as any of the other contenders, an offensive line improving week by week and a running game that’s shown flashes of dominance. More importantly, they have the one thing that offsets inconsistent quarterback play – they have a coach in Rex Ryan who has turned what appeared a flawed roster into a team that can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the league.
The Jets also have a schedule that will very clearly define their rank as contenders, with games against the Ravens and Browns and two against the Dolphins still to come. This is not a year to “back in.” Wins in three of those four will put the Jets a victory away from 9-7, which will be good enough to at least get the Jets to tiebreakers for the sixth seed this year.
Of the remaining games against the Bills, Panthers and Raiders, two of the three are visibly winnable, even if the game in Carolina stands as the Jets’ biggest test this season.
Barring a sudden run by one of those other four clubs, a 10-6 finish almost assuredly guarantees the Jets a spot in January. To do that, the Jets will need to put together two, three or possibly four wins in a row. They’ll have to win in hostile environments and beat teams Rex has yet to beat during his time with the Jets. They may even need to sweep the rival Dolphins if there’s a slip-up in Baltimore or against Cleveland.
With five teams so clearly incomplete, it seems pretty clear this is no longer a race for wins. This is an over-the-rope Royal Rumble. And the last to six losses wins.
Corey works for NBCSports.com as an editor and can be reached at @cgriffin415 on Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.