If there's anything we learned from the Jets' improbable win over the Steelers on Sunday, it's this: We don't know anything about the Jets. This team lost eight of its first nine games with the league's worst run defense and a confused offense. But last week they did everything well, including some big plays on special teams. Jets fans can't help but feel that this team could have been a playoff contender if they'd played like that every week.
After upsetting the Steelers, they head to Dallas for a Thanksgiving game against another of the league's elite teams. The Cowboys are 91, with their only loss coming in a tough contest with the Patriots. It's clear that the Cowboys are one of the league's best, but there's no way of knowing which Jets team will show up.
JETS (28) at DALLAS COWBOYS (91) Tomorrow, 4:15 pm, CBS
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL If all you saw was the box score from Sunday's game, you might conclude that Kellen Clemens played poorly. The Jets' new starting quarterback completed only 14 of 31 passes, threw an interception, and was sacked three times. If you watched the game, though, you saw a young signal caller who never got rattled by a relentless defense and rallied his team from behind in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Jets' offense also got a big boost from running back Thomas Jones, who carried the ball a season-high 30 times against the Steelers. Like many power runners, Jones seems to perform better when he gets into a rhythm. It's not a coincidence that the two games in which he got the most carries were the two games the Jets have won.
The importance of the running game will be magnified tomorrow afternoon with the expected absence of Laveranues Coles. The receiver suffered a high ankle sprain early in the Pittsburgh game and is expected to be on the sidelines for at least a week. Brad Smith will likely start in his place, with Justin McCareins playing an increased role as the third receiver.
Since Clemens became the starter, tight end Chris Baker has also played a bigger role in the offense. He's had four catches in each of the past two games.
The Dallas defense has been very strong up front, particularly against the run. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff brings a lot of energy to the unit and has done an outstanding job taking over after Jason Fergsuon suffered a season-ending injury. The other key player for the Cowboys is outside linebacker De-Marcus Ware. He leads the team with nine sacks and is equally strong against the run.
Despite a strong pass rush, the Dallas secondary continues to struggle. The team's 15 interceptions rank second in the NFL, but a handful of big plays can't mask their inability to cover opposing receivers. Cornerback Anthony Henry has to be slowed by an ankle injury, and has played sparingly. Teams exploit safety Roy Williams in man coverage, and the Cowboys have started to take him off the field in some passing situations.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL In any other season, Tony Romo would be the leading candidate for the league's MVP award. His 27 touchdowns and 2,848 passing yards are extraordinary numbers but even he knows the postseason hardware is going to New England's Tom Brady.
Still, the Cowboys have a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl because of Romo's strong play. The Dallas receivers thrive by finding the soft spots in the zones. Receiver Patrick Crayton has great hands and works the middle of the field very well, and Jason Witten's 55 receptions rank second among tight ends. And of course, the ability of Romo to connect with those two guys for big plays makes it very difficult for opposing defenses to double cover Terrell Owens. With four touchdown catches last Sunday, he reminded everyone that he can still be an elite receiver. When Owens is unhappy, he can single-handedly wreck a team. But when he feels appreciated, he is as good a receiver as anyone who ever played the game.
Romo has also been helped by great pass protection. The Cowboys' veteran line has allowed just 13 sacks this season, the fourth-lowest total in the league. The Jets will put them to the test tomorrow after sacking Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger seven times Sunday. That breakthrough performance came in large part because the Jets blitzed early and added some new wrinkles up front. They appeared to be using a "spy" to keep Big Ben contained. This forced him to move up in the pocket rather than moving outside when the pressure came, a strategy that proved very effective. Look for the Jets to be similarly aggressive against the mobile Romo.
The Jets will also need to build on the improvements in their run defense. They held the Steelers to 112 yards last week, forty yards less than their season average. More importantly, they held Willie Parker, the league's second leading rusher, to just 2.5 yards per carry.
There are two key personnel changes that have made a big impact. First, the Jets used defensive end Shaun Ellis at linebacker on about 20% of the plays, giving them a bigger front-seven against the run. Second, David Harris led the team with 11 tackles and had one of the Jets' seven sacks. He's a run stuffer with the ideal skill set for coach Eric Mangini's 34 defense.
KEYS TO THE GAME To stop the Cowboys, the Jets will need to do the same things they did against the Steelers: run the ball, pressure the quarterback, and stifle the Cowboys' ground attack. The Jets don't have enough firepower to get into a shootout with the Cowboys. For them to win, they have to stop Romo and control the clock with their own ground game. For Dallas, the recipe is relatively straightforward. When the Jets blitz, Romo needs to get the ball to Owens and take advantage of single coverage.
Lahman's Pick: Cowboys 2820