Following a Sunday which saw the Jets blown out at home by the San Francisco 49ers while losing a valuable contributor (Santonio Holmes) for the second consecutive week, the Jets' Monday night matchup against the Houston Texans is being viewed by many as a season-defining game.
In truth, Houston, like San Francisco, represents the vastly more difficult end of Gang Green's remaining schedule. Following Monday night's game, the Jets will only face one more team (New England) that made the playoffs in 2011.
Yet the Jets looked very bad last week and didn't look particularly good against the Dolphins in Week 3 either, and the national audience provided by Monday Night Football makes this game feel like an early referendum on the Jets' 2012 season. There could be lasting impacts to an ugly loss to Houston, and several Jets will have to step up for Gang Green to have a chance to pull the upset.
It remains likely that the only way the Jets can emerge as a playoff contender in 2012 is through substantially improved play at the quarterback position. Despite the various circumstances Sanchez has had to contend with this season, his play has been extremely poor after Week 1.
Sanchez does not have Santonio Holmes this week. He likely will not have Stephen Hill or Dustin Keller either. The running game remains a clear work-in-progress, and the offensive line has its warts as well.
But he will be playing on a national stage Monday night, and more and more fans are calling for Tim Tebow following last week's meltdown against the 49ers. If, as another subset of the Jet fanbase (including myself) believes, Tebow is not the answer, a poor year from Sanchez may still lead to the Jets looking at a quarterback like Geno Smith in April.
Sanchez is likely playing for his job over the coming months, and he needs to step up his game.
Joe McKnight has not played much of a role for the Jets on offense this year, even being temporarily "traded" to the defense following Darrelle Revis' season-ending injury.
Yet the Jets have a dire need for offensive playmakers at this point, and for all of McKnight's faults, he is certainly a playmaker. Aside from Jeremy Kerley, no Jet is a bigger threat with the ball in his hands than McKnight is.
McKnight also has the potential to jumpstart the Jets through the kick return game, but Tony Sparano would be wise to start getting creative and taking more risks on offense. McKnight is the perfect vehicle for that creativity.
With the Jets' pass-catching corps ridden injuries, Schilens suddenly becomes one of Mark Sanchez's primary targets in Week 5.
Schilens, the closest thing the Jets have to a healthy standard wide receiver right now (Jeremy Kerley remains the Jets' best receiving threat but is most comfortable in the slot), saw much more action last week when he caught three passes for 45 yards. He will be expected to play a huge role in the offense this week.
Monday's game also serves as an audition of sorts for Schilens. While Stephen Hill will likely return soon, he has shown that he not ready to be a consistent contributor yet, as he struggles with press coverage. Schilens may be a primary target for Mark Sanchez over the foreseeable future.
The Jets need to give their undermanned receiving core time to get open this week, and stopping J.J. Watt will be a big priority as a result.
This task will likely fall to Howard more often than not if the Texans are smart. Howard is no Wayne Hunter, but he is also no D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Houston will look to exploit this matchup and disrupt Mark Sanchez's timing.
Howard will likely have help, but the Jets also need to get multiple receivers into their patterns, as they cannot rely on one or two get open consistently. If Watt dominates Howard, Sanchez won't really have a chance Monday night.
In order to help Mark Sanchez against the Texans, the Jets need an improved running game and improved leadership. Brandon Moore can help fill both of those holes.
Moore, the less-heralded stalwart of the Jet offensive line behind Nick Mangold and Ferguson, is one of the few remaining veterans on the offense. The right guard can spring Shonn Greene (or hopefully, Bilal Powell) for reliable gains when he is at his best, even alongside Howard.
Moore has also long been considered a leader on offense, and he can help settle down the Jets' younger players who may still be reeling from last week or their new-found roles.
The Jets have had a lot of difficulty stopping off-tackle and outside runs this season, and their task will not get any easier against Arian Foster and the Texans.
New York's best run defender in 2012 has clearly been Wilkerson, capable of blowing up his man and creating a tackle for loss on any play. The Jets will need him to be at his best this week to help cover some of the other holes in the run defense.
According to Rich Cimini, the Jets have long believed that they can compete against the Houston offense by being physical. Wilkerson forcing his way through the left side of the Texans offensive line would be a great way to prove that point.
The Jets are searching for leadership on defense as well, especially following Carlos Rogers' assertion that the New York defense "quit" last week.
Scott, New York's vocal linebacker, can certainly provide that leadership. The Jets can get a big emotional boost from the "nobody believes in us" mentality and having enough pride not to get blown out on Monday night, and Scott is more than capable of getting everybody fired up.
Gang Green also needs Scott to do a better job in the run game. His lateral quickness simply isn't what it used to be, so Scott needs to play smart and take care of his gap control responsibilities.
Speaking of quickness, the Jets may look to get Maybin involved more if they find they cannot set the edge otherwise.
Maybin also remains one of the Jets' biggest pass-rushing threats, capable of disrupting Matt Schaub when the occasion calls for it. He is one of the few Jet players who can generate a pass rush without being part of a big blitz.
The coaching staff has not been felt comfortable relying upon Maybin much this season, and turning to him amounts to a similar risk as playing McKnight. If the Jets are not comfortable playing Maybin even in these circumstances, he doesn't have much of a future with the team.
In their first week of life without Revis, the Jets' cornerback depth was tested as the San Francisco 49ers spread the field. Kyle Wilson in particular looked vulnerable and was lucky that Alex Smith misfired on a few potential big plays.
Cromartie will likely be tested this week, as the Texans have a true No. 1 wide receiver in Andre Johnson. This was the kind of matchup that Revis used to own, and teams will be eager to see if Cromartie can really lock down top players one-on-one.
In many ways, this may be a better matchup for the Jets secondary, as Gang Green does not have to worry as much about its depth and Cromartie is one of the better players they have. The Jets' new No. 1 cornerback will have to prove he is up to the challenge, though.
Bell has been the quieter member of the Jets' safety tandem, but he remains a solid member of the secondary who can help right New York's defensive ship.
Bell has always been a good run defender, and it would not be surprising to see him play up in the box and force Matt Schaub to throw the ball if Cromartie is on his game.
The former Miami Dolphin can also provide the Jets with additional veteran leadership, as he has been a part of some difficult seasons in the past and can work with younger players on remaining sharp and professional despite the challenges they face.