NEW YORK — All that stands between the New York Jets and the playoffs is Rex Ryan.
Well, how's that for an absolutely juicy story line?
The Jets, in their first season under coach Todd Bowles, are facing a win-and-in scenario against the Buffalo Bills and their former coach, who was fired after failing to lead New York to the postseason in each of the last four of his six seasons.
"In the words of the great Steve Smith," linebacker Calvin Pace said, referring to Baltimore's loquacious wide receiver, "man, it's going to be a bloodbath."
The Jets (10-5) went from being outside the playoff picture to controlling their chances with a 26-20 overtime victory Sunday over the New England Patriots — helped in large part by Bill Belichick choosing to kick off rather than start the extra period on offense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick coolly marched the Jets downfield and won it with a 6-yard pass to Eric Decker.
Pittsburgh, which held a tiebreaker edge over New York, surprisingly lost to Baltimore and slipped behind the Jets in the playoff race.
"I want it," defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson said of reaching the postseason. "I want it bad."
He and the Jets get to prove how much next Sunday at Buffalo (7-8). The Bills had high hopes in Ryan's first season, especially when he declared their playoff drought would end. Instead, they'll miss out for the 16th straight year.
So, after spending six years doing everything he could to get the Jets into the postseason, Ryan will be out to keep them from getting in.
"It's just the next game on the schedule," cornerback Darrelle Revis said, downplaying the matchup.
Ryan is already 1-0 against his former team after a 22-17 victory over the Jets in a Thursday night game. While Ryan was clearly excited by the win, he also predicted the teams' next meeting would probably help decide who goes to the playoffs.
He was half-right.
On Monday, Ryan praised the Jets, not adding any extra fuel — but, it's early in the week, of course.
"I think, first off, it's about getting the win and we know we are facing a team that is red hot," Ryan said in Buffalo. "This team is a complete football team."
After their loss to the Bills, the Jets fell to Houston 24-17 to drop to 5-5. A 4-1 start was washed away by inconsistency, lost opportunities and a search for answers.
"We had to come together," Pace said, "or the ship was gonna sink."
They haven't lost since.
"The past couple weeks have been playoff games," Bowles said. "There really is no pressure. They just play together and we have fun and we try to get better as a team. There's no pressure on us. We know have to win. We've been having to win the past five weeks. "
Fitzpatrick's steady play during the winning streak has been MVP-like. He has thrown for 1,525 yards and 13 touchdowns with one interception. In three of the last four games, Fitzpatrick has driven the Jets to a win in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime.
"Fitz has been amazing for us," Pace said.
So has Brandon Marshall, who set the franchise's single-season mark with 101 catches — and counting. Decker has, too, with 75 catches, including 11 TD grabs.
The defense has been terrific the past month, led by a front line that made things miserable for Tom Brady and the Patriots.
These are the things the Jets players expected back in September.
"There was still a ton of belief and I just think you know being in the league and having experience that a lot of us do have, you can recognize when you have a good team," Fitzpatrick said. "So, I think the belief's always been there just because we see the way that everybody works week in and week out and we see the talent level on this team.
"I think that the belief has been there from Day 1 and it hasn't wavered."
Left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson echoed that sentiment: "I think we knew we had a special team even at the beginning of the season."
Bowles let his team know what's at stake in his postgame speech Sunday, telling the players: "Win and we're in."
That's about as far as the coach will go in terms of motivational tactics. Bowles feels none of that stuff is needed at this point with so much on the line.
"We're going to treat it the same," Bowles said of the approach for Sunday's game. "We understand what we're going up against. We've got to continue to do the things we've been doing. We try to do anything else, then we won't have a chance to win."