The New York Jets haven't been safely in the playoffs with a game to go in the regular season since the 1998 season when they went to the AFC Championship Game.
It's understandable, then, that they are having a tough time figuring out how to approach this weekend's game with the Bills. The Jets have very little to play for, especially when you consider that they might prefer a trip to Kansas City than the visit to Indianapolis they could earn if they wind up tied with the Steelers. That would make it seem like caution is the best policy for dealing with Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury.
Rex Ryan certainly made it sound that way after Sunday's loss to the Bears. The coach said they'd "really look" at not playing Sanchez so he'd be fully rested and ready for the Wild Card round. Maybe it was being trapped in Chicago overnight, but something made Ryan reconsider his approach toward the quarterback's status.
"I want to win this game. Now, obviously, his health is the number one concern. It’s kind of a fine line because he is hot right now. We can’t afford for him to take a dip. We need him to stay at this level."
Given Ryan's refusal to consider the drawbacks of any decision, that's a bit scary.
They can't afford for him to miss a playoff game with an injury, either. Time off didn't cost the Colts anything when they got into the playoffs last season nor did Drew Brees seem the least bit bothered by handing the offense to Mark Brunell for the final game of the season. No one's confusing Sanchez for Brees or Peyton Manning, obviously, but the point is that time off does not stand in the way of mojo.
As for wanting to win, both of those teams entered the playoffs on multiple game losing streaks last season before reeling off enough wins to get to the Super Bowl. And, though Rex will never admit it, the Jets' wins over the Colts and Bengals didn't have them in peak form when they hit the playoffs last season.
In short, if Sanchez's health is the number one concern then winning the game and momentum have to take a back seat.
But we all know that Sanchez's health is, at best, concern 1B for the Jets. The chief concern is winning games in the playoffs. Sitting Sanchez does not fit comfortably into that equation. He's been awful on extended rest all three times he's played on it this season and there won't be another chance for him to find himself if the same thing happens again. Sanchez is coming off two of his better games of the season and it's silly not to consider keeping that going as long as possible.
The answer seems to be clear. Start Sanchez, play him for the first quarter or three possessions or some pre-ordained amount of time and then let Brunell handle it the rest of the way. Ryan simply can't put winning ahead of Sanchez's health, but the risk of injury can't stop you from putting the team into the best position possible at the end of Week 17.
That's reasonable, measured and appropriate for the circumstances. Those are three things rarely associated with Ryan, so it remains to be seen if everything plays out that way.