Jets try to keep pace in playoff hunt as Lions make late run
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Robert Saleh is always quick to remind people he’s an eternal optimist, thinking the best-case scenario in every situation.
That’s why it wasn’t necessarily so stunning to hear the New York Jets coach declare after his team’s loss to the Buffalo Bills last Sunday that the squads would meet again — in the playoffs.
Saleh is also a realist.
He knows in order for the Jets to snap their 11-year postseason drought, which is the NFL’s longest active skid, they’ve got plenty more winning to do. And it needs to start Sunday at MetLife Stadium against a roaring Detroit Lions squad that has won five of its past six.
“We’re going to get everyone’s absolute best shot because they’re fighting for their lives, too,” Saleh said. “And that’s why we strive for December football. This is the fun stuff.”
After the game Sunday comes a Thursday night home game against Jacksonville (5-8) before road games at Seattle (7-6) and Miami (8-5).
“What’s cool about this,” Saleh said, “is we’ve got four playoff games, because every team we’re playing is fighting for a playoff spot.”
The Jets (7-6) dropped from the seventh spot in the AFC playoff hunt to the outside looking in with their 20-12 loss at Buffalo combined with victories by New England (7-6) and the Los Angeles Chargers (7-6) — who both leapfrogged them.
Meanwhile, Dan Campbell’s Lions (6-7) are also on the playoff bubble, but have won five of six for the first time since winning five straight under former coach Jim Caldwell in 2016 — the most recent time they made the playoffs.
“It’s about as good as it’s felt in my entire career here, about as confident as we’ve ever been,” said offensive tackle Taylor Decker, who was drafted by the Lions six years ago.
The Lions have a chance to win six of seven for the first time since 2014, a successful stretch that included a win over the Jets on the road that ended with an 11-5 record in the regular season and a loss to Dallas in an NFC wild-card game.
“Listen, we’ve got enough smart guys,” Campbell said. “They understand what’s right in front of us, and that’s New York Jets, who are a very tough, physical team, and they’re very much in the race. And you’re crazy if you don’t think they want it.
“They’ll be coming with everything they’ve got against us, and so this is going to be one of those, man. We’ve got to be locked and loaded and ready to go. I mean, this will be a physical game.”
Zach Wilson will start at quarterback for the Jets, who were hoping to have Mike White under center despite him being limited early in the week while dealing with a rib injury.
White was twice knocked from the loss at Buffalo after taking big hits, but finished the game — and then left the stadium in an ambulance for further examination. X-rays came back clean and he said earlier in the week he was “ready to roll.”
Saleh announced Friday that team doctors wouldn’t clear White for contact, so he will have to miss the game.
Wilson was promoted this week from No. 3 to White’s backup after being benched last month.
Jared Goff and the Lions have matched a team record by scoring 25 or more points in five straight games for the first time since 1954, and have 30-plus points in four of the past five games.
“The biggest thing for us is just showing who we are, blocking out the outside noise,” said wide receiver DJ Chark, who has 11 catches for 192 yards over the past two games. “It’s a long season, but right now we’re feeling good.”
PASS THE SAUCE
The Jets were thrilled cornerback Sauce Gardner was available to draft at No. 4 overall after Detroit was one of three teams to pass on him. The Lions instead took Michigan star defensive end Aidan Hutchinson with the No. 2 pick — and he has panned out, leading NFL rookies with seven sacks.
As much as Gardner would have addressed a need with the Lions, they didn’t really consider taking him.
“We felt pretty comfortable with where we wanted to go with it,” Campbell said.
Campbell, though, did like what he saw on tape of the 6-foot-3 Gardner at Cincinnati.
“We loved his length,” he said. “We thought he was pretty smart, pretty crafty, he was aggressive, runs pretty good.”
Saleh and Campbell squared off during the offseason when their coaching staffs led the squads of college standouts at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, last February.
Saleh’s National Team — with Jets tight ends coach Ron Middleton serving as head coach — topped Campbell’s American Team — with Lions assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley the head coach — 20-10.
“He was great,” Campbell said of Saleh. “He’s an unbelievable human being.”
HE’S NOT LION
Saleh grew up a Lions fan in Dearborn, Michigan, located about 9 miles west of Detroit. Many of his high school buddies still root for the team.
He interviewed with the Lions to be their head coach in January 2021 before he was hired by the Jets.
“Thankful for that conversation,” he said, “but really happy that I’m here.”
Saleh’s favorite player as a kid? Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.
“Oh yeah, whose guy wasn’t he?” a smiling Saleh said. “Best of all time, running back.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.
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