EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The presence of all those Super Bowl III heroes on Sunday wasn't just a celebration of the Jets' greatest achievement, it was a painful reminder of why it's so hard to believe in this year's team. There have been too many years of heartache, too many seasons of disappointment, too many times the rug was pulled out from under everyone's feet.
So when these Jets beat the Indianapolis Colts 42-34 on Sunday, barely hanging on in the end, there were surely a few skeptics who saw the team's obvious flaws. And when Todd Bowles stepped to the podium and said "We're right back in the thick of these things," it's understandable if everyone rolled his or her eyes.
Because the Jets have been here before. Many, many times. And the believers have always ended up frustrated and let down in the end.
But maybe this time there really are good reasons to start believing that these aren't the same old Jets.
"I feel like we improved as far as facing adversity," said defensive end Leonard Williams. "There were times it looked like they might get back in the game. Nobody rolled over. Nobody stopped playing."
"The growth of this team," Bowles added. "We probably would've lost this one a year ago or a couple weeks ago. So to win ugly for us is a pretty good thing."
Anyone who watched the Jets knows that they easily would have lost a game like this a year ago, no matter how wonderful their young quarterback played or how many points their offense put on the board. In the second half, when they started settling for field goals they gave Andrew Luck an opening to come back. And he nearly did.
It's a game the "same old Jets" lose. It's a game they've lost over and over again throughout the years. It would've been a symbol of one of their biggest issues under Bowles: Their inability to handle prosperity. And it would've been a symbol of what they had done to their fans for 50 years: Just when you think it's safe to believe, they prove it's not.
Now, these Jets may have a long way to go to make up for five decades of pain, but think about what they've done just in the first six games of this season. They could've easily folded at 1-3 when their young quarterback was struggling, the defense was showing some cracks, and the vultures were already circling around Bowles.
Instead they won two games against two teams they know they absolutely should have beaten. And suddenly they're .500 again, and just one game out of first in the AFC East.
"And we're not done yet," said linebacker Darron Lee.
It's OK to want to believe him. It's also important to be realistic. This is still a Jets team with flaws. They still don't generate much of a pass rush on defense, and that took a toll on their banged-up secondary late in the game. Their offensive line is improving, but still inconsistent. They don't really have a No. 1 receiver. And their quarterback is 21 years old.
None of that likely adds up to a playoff team - this year. But this year is really all about growth and promise and building something for 2019 and beyond. Everyone knows the quarterback has talent. His performance on Sunday (24 of 30, 280 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) just adds to his deserved hype.
It's what the rest of the team did that makes this team seem different. When Quincy Enunwa, Sam Darnold's most dependable receiver, went down with an ankle injury, Jermaine Kearse stepped up and caught nine catches for 94 yards and Terrelle Pryor added five for 57 yards and a touchdown. When Darnold struggled early and again when the offense stalled late, the defense stepped up picking off Luck three times and forcing four turnovers.
This team fights. It doesn't give up or lose its energy like so many previous versions.
And when a fired-up Jets legend Joe Namath told the crowd at halftime that "this team today that you have here, the current Jets, can beat anybody at any time. You've got to believe that and they've got to believe that," guess what?
The Jets believed that.
"He's right," Lee said. "Thank you for that. That was great to hear."
Of course, it's early. The Vikings at home next week won't be an easy game. Neither will their trip to Chicago the following week or their two games against the Patriots after Thanksgiving. Darnold is going to have his struggles at times. The defense isn't going to always create as many turnovers as it has so far.
The true test of a young team, though, is what happens when it faces adversity. What happens when they're 1-3 and their season is in danger of spiraling out of control early? What happens when the big lead they built is starting to collapse? What happens when they're pushed? Do they push back?
So far, this team definitely does.
"Last year we probably wouldn't have won that game," said linebacker Avery Williamson. "We're learning how to play tough and we're learning about being resilient. We just have to keep growing up."
It won't happen overnight, but it's clear that it's really starting to happen. And that alone is a good enough reason to start to actually believe that things won't be the same.