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New York Jets: 5 Things to Watch for vs Carolina Panthers

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New York Jets: 5 Things to Watch for vs Carolina Panthers

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Jets have been one of the most inconsistent and frustrating teams in the NFL this season, and they are clinging to the slimmest of playoff hopes heading into their Week 15 matchup with the Carolina Panthers. The Jets broke a three game losing streak with last week’s win over the Oakland Raiders, and now they are looking to pull the upset over the Panthers.

The Jets are actually 3-0 against the NFC South this season, but a road game against the Panthers and their outstanding defense is by far the biggest test they have faced. The Panthers rank 2nd in the NFL in total defense and 1st in scoring defense, a bad combination for the weak Jets’ offense.

Geno Smith finally rebounded against the Raiders, but he will have to be even better against the Panthers if the Jets want to have a chance. Chris Ivory and the rushing attack must be at the top of their game, and the offensive line needs to be hold up against the Panthers’ very talented defensive line.

Defensively, the Jets have the ability to keep this game low scoring. The Panthers prefer to win games on the ground, but the Jets have arguably the best run defense in the NFL. However, the Jets’ secondary has been suspect, so the defensive backs’ play must equal that of the front seven.

The Jets desperately need to pull the upset to keep their playoff hopes alive, but this may be too tough of a challenge for them to overcome. If the Jets are to going to win then they must succeed in these five crucial areas.

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Can Geno Smith Continue to Improve?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Smith finally broke out of his slump against the Raiders, completing 16/25 passes for 219 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT while adding 5 carries for 50 yards and touchdown. It wasn’t the most impressive game, but it was a huge improvement over his previous four.

However, the Panthers’ defense is much, much bigger challenge for Smith, and they have made quarterbacks far more talented than Smith look incompetent this season. Smith cannot afford any turnovers in this game, and he needs to be able to create some plays that stretch the defense and open up the run. His performance is the key to the Jets’ chances, so he needs to be on top of his game.

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How do Jets Contain Cam Newton?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The other quarterback in this game is a far more dangerous player. Cam Newton has finally put his considerable skills together in his third season, and he is blossoming into an elite quarterback. Newton is obviously lethal on the ground, but his passing has improved in leaps and bounds.

Newton is completing 62.0% of his passes for 2,776 yards, 20 TDs and 11 INTs this season, and he does a nice job of spreading the ball around to various targets. The Jets need to get pressure on Newton without over-pursuing, forcing him to make rushed throws without the chance to scramble. It is easier said than done, but Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and the rest of the Jets’ front seven have the talent to disrupt Newton.

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Will Pass Defense Hold Up?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

The Jets’ pass defense has been a problem all season, ranking just 24th in the NFL. Making matters worse, Antonio Cromartie may miss the game with a concussion. The Panthers have a well-rounded group of receivers, and Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn have each caught at least four touchdowns.

That means the Jets’ entire secondary will need to improve, especially if Cromartie can’t play. The only the way the Jets are going to win this game is if it is low scoring, so the secondary can’t allow any big plays. They have struggled all season, and it is now or never for the pass defense to improve.

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Jets' Receivers Must Step Up

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets’ lack of playmakers at receiver has been a key storyline all season, and Jeremy Kerley’s 32 receptions for 388 yards and 3 touchdowns somehow leads the team in all three categories. The Jets have dealt with a myriad of injuries at receiver, but they are finally healthy.

Santonio Holmes and Kellen Winslow in particular need to be key playmakers, as they are veteran targets that Smith trusts. Winslow has been big on third downs, and he needs to make some plays in the red zone as well. Holmes is being paid to be a No. 1 receiver, and it is about time he starts to play like one. If the receivers can make some plays and get the Jets scoring opportunities, they will have a shot at winning.

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Jets Need Upset Win to Stay Alive

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The San Diego Chargers’ win over the Denver Broncos last night was yet another blow to the Jets’ playoff hopes, and now it looks like the Jets will need to win out in order to have a shot at the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Panthers are 5-1 at home and the Jets are 1-5 on the road.

Combine that with the fact that the Panthers are just a flat out better team, and things don’t look good for the Jets. Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg will need to come up with some outstanding game plans, and Ryan needs to get his team motivated. The Jets’ season is on the line Sunday, and they need to play like it.

Greg Sulik is a New York Jets writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GregSulik or add him to your network on Google