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Jets look ready to finally take on challenge of meaningful December games

The Jets don’t play this Thursday. Thursday will be a practice day, Day 2 of their preparation for a critical game in Minnesota three days later. But in so many ways, Thursday will have profound meaning for the Jets.

Thursday, midnight, the calendar flips from November to December.

It will be Dec. 1. The Jets will be 7-4. They will be in position to make the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years, but best of all they will play games that matter in December. In some NFL precincts that would induce a yawn and a ho-hum.

Around here, it’s big news.

So, sure, disparage Sunday’s opponent, the woeful Bears, as much as you like. Yes, they are a bad team with an abysmal defense. Yes, they were absent the one player who makes them remotely watchable, quarterback Justin Fields, down with a bum shoulder.

But the Jets beat Chicago soundly, 31-10. They shrugged off an uncharacteristically slow start by the defense. They shrugged off the weather, the sky spitting rain from opening kickoff to final gun. They shrugged off a boisterous week in which the fair-haired quarterback of tomorrow became the street-clothes-wearing third-stringer of today.

“We ignored all the noise,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said about 15 minutes after his giddy players sloshed off the MetLife Stadium field. “The guys did a great job executing.”

Bill Kostroun

They did. They spotted the Bears a 10-7 lead even after Mike F. White led them on a 75-yard touchdown march on their first series of the game, the defense looking like maybe they still had a bit of a Thanksgiving hangover.

But the moment White hooked up with Garrett Wilson on a 54-yard scoring play with 4:57 left in the second quarter to give the Jets the lead back, the tenor and the feel of the game changed permanently. The defense allowed no more points. The offense worked as efficiently as it has in years, White piling up 315 yards and scattering his 22 completions to 10 different receivers.

Bill Kostroun

“That was too much fun, and it was reflected in the score,” crowed Elijah Moore, a forgotten man for much of the season who caught two balls, one for 42 yards, one a 22-yard touchdown that pushed the Jets’ lead to 24-10 in the third. “That’s real New York Jets football. That’s the definition of team football.”

Moore would get no argument from the other 52 men clad in green or any of the 77,963 inside MetLife who enjoyed a good three-hour soaking but still seemed to be having a hell of a time, chanting both for their J-E-T-S and for their quarterback, presently the leader in the clubhouse for the office of mayor of Florham Park.

“It’s awesome to go out there playing football with your friends,” White said. “It was a complete team win.”

The most encouraging part of Sunday is that the Jets, almost to a man, enjoyed their win without getting carried away by it, with the underlying understanding that there is still work to do, and a lot of it.

Playing meaningful December games is a lot different than winning them, and the assignment next week — against the 9-2 Vikings, at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium — kicks off a stout two-week gauntlet that will include a return date with the Bills at Orchard Park.

Bill Kostroun

“Our guys don’t flinch,” Saleh said, and what’s also clear is they don’t much carry things over week-to-week — positively and negatively — from week-to-week, either. Part of that was undoubtedly the presence of White, who didn’t only play a terrific game but by his mere insertion as QB1 reflected a simple yet essential part of the meritocracy Saleh is trying to establish.

You perform well, you play.

You don’t, you sit. No matter your draft-day pedigree.

It is a fine lesson to teach a young quarterback like Zach Wilson, and it is an even greater message to send to the other folks on the team who have pushed the Jets to where they are, to the doorstep of December, to the precipice of a playoff push. The season stopped being about moral victories months ago. Only the real ones will do now.

“We need to keep the main thing the main thing,” said C.J. Mosely, the soul of the defense who had an interception, repeating a mantra he instills in his teammates often. “We haven’t scratched the surface of how great we can be.”

The best part of that? If he’s right, the Jets have the opportunity to back up those words. Next week in Minnesota would be wonderful place to start.