At their lowest, New York Jets sparked hope with simple credo: 'Go to mama'

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The low point was Oct. 24 at Gillette Stadium, where the New York Jets got pushed around and laughed at by the New England Patriots. The game was so one-sided that Patriots legend Richard Seymour, honored at halftime, defied the Bill Belichick code: He insulted the opponent. Speaking to the fans, he called the Jets their homecoming game. The crowd roared.

Final score: 54-13.

The Jets were in a dark place, suffering two more blowout losses in the ensuing weeks. They weren't just a bad football team, they were historically bad. They looked like the same sorry outfit from 2020, except with a more charismatic coach.

They steadied the ship, albeit in a loss, by starting veteran quarterback Joe Flacco over Mike White in Week 12 -- a controversial decision at the time -- and the Jets have been a competitive team ever since.

Not a dynamic team, mind you. Not even a good team in terms of record. But a competitive team. They've been involved in one-possession games in five of the past six fourth quarters. All things considered, that's progress, especially for such a young team.

They head into the season finale against the Buffalo Bills with a 4-12 record, which certainly isn't worthy of a marketing campaign, but they have created an identity on offense while having eliminated the nightmare games on defense.

"We have a saying," linebacker C.J. Mosley said, speaking for the defense. "When things start getting a little wild or you start to get out of whack in a game or at practice, you just say, 'Go to mama.' We went back home. We went back to our basics. We went back to our fundamentals.

"Obviously, the season didn't play out like we wanted, but from that moment until now, we're definitely a different team."

Specifically, the Jets have improved in two key areas -- running game and turnover margin. They have averaged 125.3 rushing yards with a minus-1 turnover differential over the past eight games, compared to 77.1 and minus-12 over the first eight.

Credit the offensive line, which really struggled in the new outside-zone scheme at the start of the season. With time on task, the line corrected its communication issues and built cohesiveness, which only last week was disrupted by injuries. The 273-yard performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars remains the league's top rushing day this season.

Credit offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, whose creativity and use of pre-snap motion has turned the Jets into the San Francisco 49ers East. This was the plan from the outset -- the system is predicated on the running game -- but it was dreadful in the beginning. LaFleur settled on rookie Michael Carter as the RB1 and found ways to incorporate wide receivers Braxton Berrios and Elijah Moore into the rushing attack.

Also credit quarterback Zach Wilson, who has gone four straight games without an interception after throwing 11 in his first eight starts. The productive rushing attack has reduced the pressure on the rookie, who has transitioned into a game-manager role. That can have a negative connotation for quarterbacks -- justly so, in certain cases -- but that shouldn't be the perception for Wilson, who was extremely raw when he got to the Jets. It's all about baby steps, and he's taking them.

"Obviously, the quarterback has made a significant jump in terms of just his control and command of the offense," coach Robert Saleh said.

They finally have the right formula on offense, one that was elusive for a myriad of reasons in September and October. Remember the awful starts? It took them seven -- seven! -- games before they scored a first-quarter point. They got that fixed. They have six first-quarter touchdowns in the past eight games, tied for third in the league.

Let's hold off on the superlatives, though. The Jets are averaging only 17.8 points and 190.3 passing yards over the same span, bottom-third production. Some of that can be attributed to the revolving door at wide receiver, as Moore, Jamison Crowder and Corey Davis have missed a combined 12 games over the second half. Wilson has been throwing to backups for much of the last few weeks, yet he has been able to eliminate game-changing mistakes.

Meanwhile, the defense has made small gains in points allowed (31.4 to 28.3) and yards allowed (408.1 to 383.9). This was the same unit that allowed 175 points in a four-game span in October/November, arguably the worst stretch of defense in franchise history.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich adjusted his tactics, taking a more conservative approach in an attempt to limit explosive plays. He has dialed back the blitzing and is playing more zone coverage than earlier in the season -- 59% percent of passing downs, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the first eight games, it was 42%. They remain a man-heavy defense on third down.

There has been slippage against the run and on third down, which is supposed to be the hallmark of the Saleh/Ulbrich defense. It's still ranked 32nd in yards allowed, and that's especially troubling when you consider it has faced the third-lowest average opponent offensive rating, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.

"When things start getting a little wild or you start to get out of whack in a game or at practice, you just say, 'Go to mama.' We went back home. We went back to our basics." Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley

The Jets have the youngest defense in the league, so growing pains were expected. There's still a long way to go, but at least they're a functional defense, one that has started to make plays on the ball (nine takeaways in the past eight games). There's nothing wrong with the scheme; it just needs more talent.

Be careful, though: Late-season improvement can be misleading. You saw it in 2019, when the Jets won six of their last eight games under Adam Gase. Some conveniently overlooked the easy schedule, which was a big factor. Fool's gold is everywhere in the NFL.

This season, they're ranked 11th in overall strength of schedule, but their past two wins came against bad teams -- the Jaguars and Houston Texans. That said, they hung tough with the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints and pushed the Dolphins (both games) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the brink. If it weren't for the ill-fated quarterback sneak against the Bucs, they probably would've upset the defending Super Bowl champs.

"The biggest thing is laying the foundation of what we’re trying to build on," Saleh said. "The foundation is everything. It’s been a rough stretch of time for this organization, one that you can’t truly sympathize with until you’re actually in it to understand how deep it runs from the fan base, to the organization, to everybody that’s been a part of it. This is Year 1 for me, I had no idea. But I promise you, I do now. And I think our staff does, and I think our players do and we embrace all of it."