A thought experiment: If Rex Ryan had never made such a big deal out of what he expected from the Jets this season — namely, a Super Bowl — in the preseason, what would have been a reasonable expectation for Jets fans this year? What would have been the level of success necessary for the team to avoid being called a failure? Remember, last year the Jets sneaked into the playoffs, thanks to two far-from-motivated teams in the last two weeks, and then played two relatively perfect games to reach the AFC Championship Game. (And, in case one forgot, one perfect half against Indianapolis.) The Jets earned their way to the AFC title game, but it could also be excused as a bit of a fluke. But by arriving ahead of schedule, they raised hopes for this season perhaps to an unreasonable level. And that was even before Ryan started talking.
This is the curse of success, and no one has felt it more acutely than Mark Sanchez. As our friends at Football Outsiders reminded us yesterday, Sanchez is still essentially playing his third season as a starter since high school. That's a lot to process for any young quarterback, even one as reportedly (and reportedly and reportedly and reportedly) "poised" as Sanchez. If the Jets win Saturday night against the Colts, Sanchez will start his fifth playoff game next week in Foxboro. That ties Chad Pennington for most playoff starts as a Jets quarterback. (The others: Richard Todd 4, Vinny Testaverde 3, Ken O'Brien 3, Joe Namath 3.) And he will have to face two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. It is ludicrous to expect him to beat both in two weeks.
But this is what he, and the Jets, are being asked to do. After all, the Jets actually have a worse playoff seed than they did last year. If the Jets go down to the Colts on Saturday night, all the talk, all the Sanchez idolatry, all the off-season moves preparing for this one whole season ... it will be almost as if the Jets missed the playoffs entirely. If the Jets can make it to next week, in a high-profile showdown with the hated Patriots, whatever happens in that game might feel like gravy. It will feel like the epic showdown that Ryan and company have been promising all year. But if they go down in the wild-card round, to a weakened, watered-down version of the team they lost to last year, it'll be difficult to look at this season as anything other than a massive disappointment. And with the upcoming labor wars, it might be the last anyone has to hang on to involving the Jets and Rex Ryan for a long time.
We might be saying the same thing if the Jets win this week and lose to the Patriots, of course. But if they lose to the Colts, there will be no room for debate. The Jets have a lot of work to do to back up everything we've been expecting of them. This week, alas, is only the start.