Pats Could Again Hold Jets’ Key to the Playoffs

The eyes of all New York Jet fans will be on the Meadowlands on Sunday night, as Gang Green tries to make the NFL postseason for the first time in three years.

Rightfully so, since the Jets (8-7) would either clinch the AFC’s fifth seed with a win over the Cincinnati Bengals (10-5) in the final regular season game (and likely, the last game, period) at Giants Stadium, at 8:20pm EST on Sunday night, or miss the playoffs with a loss.

Earlier in the day however, Jets fans may have to do the unimaginable and begin the new decade by rooting for their arch nemesis of the past decade.

In an ironic twist of fate, the New England Patriots (10-5), New York’s division rival, who for much of the past ten years, has stood in the way of the Jets’ success by winning (seven AFC East titles from 2001-2009 and a playoff victory over New York in 2006), could now severely damage the Jets’ playoff hopes by losing.

While focusing on Sunday night’s contest, many seem to be forgetting that what happens earlier in the day in Houston, when the Texans (8-7) host the Patriots (10-5) at 1 pm EST, might have a tremendous effect on the Jets’ chances of beating the Bengals.

Say what you will about how well the Jets played the second half in Indianapolis last week, but if the Colts didn’t rest their starters, the Jets probably wouldn’t be playing for much this Sunday.

Likewise, New York will of course have a much better chance at starting the new year with a playoff-clinching victory against Bengals’ backups instead of the Cincinnati starters that produced a 2009 AFC North championship.

At home, the Jets are still very capable of beating a motivated Bengals team with a lot to play for, but it would certainly be a lot easier for the Jets to win on Sunday night if they face a Bengals Lite team similar to the watered down version of the Colts that the Jets saw last week.

And, what Cincinnati may choose to do against the Jets could depend a lot on Sunday’s outcome in Houston.

If the Patriots beat the Texans, the Bengals would be locked into the AFC’s fourth playoff seed, and figure to rest a lot of starters at Giants Stadium, at least during the second half (especially since without a bye next week, Sunday’s game would be Cincinnati’s one chance at resting its key players prior to the playoffs).

However, if New England again stumbles away from home, and fails to lock up the third seed, that spot will be there for the taking for the Bengals. That’s something that could be a very worthwhile pursuit for Cincinnati for two reasons.

A first-round matchup as a three seed should be easier against a six seed, as opposed to playing in the four-five game next week.

Looking further down the road, the Bengals would also probably prefer a potential second-round playoff matchup at second-seeded San Diego, where Cincinnati was extremely competitive in a 27-24 loss on a 52-yard field goal with three seconds remaining, on December 20th.

A playoff rematch against the 12-3 Chargers shouldn’t be easy at all, but the alternative could be a much tougher road to the Super Bowl going to top-seeded Indianapolis as a four seed.

Although Houston needs a lot of help, the Texans will be playing for a lot regardless of how any other AFC scenario plays out. The Texans can make the playoffs with a win over the Patriots and at least two losses from among the Jets, Baltimore (8-7), and Denver (8-7). Making the postseason is obviously the primary goal, but the expansion Texans should have extra motivation to be fired up. Even if the Texans miss the playoffs this year, a win will give Houston its first winning season in its brief eight-year history while helping the Texans avoid a losing record at home, where they are currently just 3-4 this season.

Adding to the chances of a Texans’ win is the uncharacteristic Jekyl and Hyde performance of New England this year. The Patriots are a perfect 8-0 at home, but they haven’t had a decent road win all season. They’re just 2-5 away from Gillette Stadium, with road victories against 3-12 Tampa Bay (really a neutral field win, in London) and in Buffalo, against the Bills (5-10; 2-5 at home).

With the NBC flex schedule moving the Bengals-Jets game to a prime time Sunday night television affair, the final day of the regular season for Gang Green could be summed up in a single catchy phrase, as in: “Flex, Texans Affect The Jets.”

Regardless of what happens outside of the Meadowlands though, Jet fans are hoping that come Sunday night, they won’t be repeating a far more common phrase, such as “Houston, we have a problem.”

Yahoo Sports lays out the full playoff picture, with all possible remaining combinations, here:

http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=ys-09playoffpicture&prov=yhoo&type=lgns

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