Atlanta – Three wins in a row over struggling opponents have revived the New York Jets’ playoff hopes. Possibly getting Mark Sanchez back could help.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Falcons’ postseason chances are dimming fast with six losses in eight games.
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The Jets will try to take advantage of the struggling Falcons when the teams meet at the Meadowlands on Sunday.
The Jets (7-6) appeared to be falling out of the playoff race following a 1-6 stretch, but three consecutive wins over teams under .500 have them back in the mix. They are tied with Miami for second in the AFC East, one game behind New England, although they don’t hold tiebreakers over either team.
A wild-card berth might be the Jets’ more likely route to the postseason, but they may have to win their remaining three games against Atlanta (6-7), unbeaten Indianapolis and AFC North-leading Cincinnati to have a chance. New York is battling seven teams for two wild-card spots.
“They know how I feel,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Our official stance is it’s improbable right now. That’s the way everybody will approach it right now. Our stance is we believe we’re going to win every game. That’s the way it’s been since Day 1.”
The Jets could get a lift if Sanchez is able to return from a knee injury that kept him out last week. The rookie quarterback returned to practice Wednesday and split snaps with Kellen Clemens.
He got hurt during a 19-13 win over Buffalo in Toronto on Dec. 3 when he slide headfirst for a first down.
Ryan wants to be sure there’s no stiffness or swelling in Sanchez’s knee, which was protected by a brace in practice, before deciding who will start Sunday.
“As of right now, he feels good,” Ryan said. “He looked good out there, he moved well. I’ll check again with our medical staff (Thursday) morning and then we’ll decide what we’ll do with reps and things like that going forward.”
If Sanchez can’t play, Ryan would turn to Clemens again. The veteran backup completed 12 of 23 passes for 111 yards against the Buccaneers in his first start in nearly two years.
Sanchez has struggled in his first year, completing 53.2 percent of his passes for 2,049 yards with 11 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
His inconsistent play is part of the reason why the Jets are relying on a running game that tops the NFL with 169.1 yards per game, and a defense that is ranked first in the league at 264.7 yards allowed per contest.
Running back Thomas Jones has turned in another strong season, ranking among the NFL leaders with 1,167 yards and while averaging 4.4 per carry with 11 TDs. Jones scored twice and gained 99 yards against the Buccaneers.
He should face a good test against a Falcons defense that allowed an average of 89.8 rushing yards over the last four games.
Atlanta nearly upset unbeaten New Orleans before losing 26-23, but the Falcons are in danger of falling out of playoff contention. Despite a 4-1 start, they have fallen two games behind Dallas for the final wild-card spot.
“We have to win out, and some teams have to lose,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “At the same time, we still have a chance.”
The Falcons’ quarterback situation is clouded, with Matt Ryan’s availability uncertain after he missed the last two games – both losses – with a toe injury.
Chris Redman has filled in for last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, throwing for 781 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions in three games.
The Falcons are also dealing with trouble off the field. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux was arrested last week for smoking marijuana as he and a friend were driving