HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) _ Early in the season, the New York Jets had a defense that was far from perfect.
In three of their first four games, the Jets jumped to big leads before the defense wilted and allowed their opponent get back into the contest. Against Cincinnati in the opener, the Jets led 24-13 going into the fourth quarter before holding on 31-24.
They led San Diego 27-7 before the Chargers made a game of it; the Jets won 34-28.
Buffalo scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to take a brief lead before New York rallied for a 16-14 victory.
Things have changed. The Jets have not given up a second-half score in three straight games and six overall, and lead the league in scoring defense. They are allowing 14.6 points a game, on pace to break the team record of 15.4 set in 1993, when they finished 8-8 and didn't make the playoffs.
From the first game to right now, they've come a long way,'' coach Herman Edwards said.They've got a lot of pride to train hard, and that's what they've got to do down the stretch. They know the defense has to show up in December.''
Especially with a tough stretch ahead and a playoff berth in the balance. The Jets (9-3) start the final four games of their season at Pittsburgh (11-1) on Sunday, and also have games against Seattle (6-6) and New England (11-1) before closing at St. Louis (6-6).
The Jets have a two-game lead in the wild-card race, and made the playoffs the two other times they started 9-3 (1985, 1968). They got off to a better start in 1986, going 10-2 and reaching the postseason as well.
Playing solid defense gives them a chance to keep that trend going.
So far, the Jets have given up an average of 290.8 yards a game, compared to the 332.4 they yielded last year. The biggest improvement has been in run defense, where the Jets rank seventh, allowing 99.8 yards a game, compared to 143.4 (28th) they allowed last year.
Dewayne Robertson has been a key to stopping the run. The No. 4 overall pick from last year struggled through his rookie season, but made strides in the offseason. He lost 10-15 pounds and came in with confidence, announcing during training camp, 'Can't nobody block me.'
Robertson has plugged lanes in the running game and gotten pressure in the passing game. Edwards and defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson have lobbied for Robertson to make the Pro Bowl.
Another improvement of late has been the play of the secondary. Henderson called the unit the weakest on the team earlier in the year. In the first seven games, the Jets gave up 23 plays of 20 yards or more.
In the last five, they have allowed nine, including just two to the high-powered Houston Texans. The Jets have stepped up their takeaways, too, with six in the last two games.
Cornerback David Barrett, a free-agent acquisition from Arizona, has been part of the resurgence. He got an interception against the Cardinals and Texans, his first two of the year, and already has a career-high 10 passes defensed.
His two big plays in the Houston game helped the Jets stay in it. On the first drive, he broke up a fourth-down pass for Andre Johnson in the end zone. Then just before halftime, Chad Pennington threw an interception, giving Houston the ball at the Jets 36 with a chance to add to its one-point lead.
But Barrett got a pick of his own two players later, squelching all momentum.
Barrett has come a long ways in a short amount of time, he's one of those guys who stepped up his game,'' Henderson said.He's the best one we've got back there.''
Barrett is just happy to be on a winning team after spending so many years in Arizona. ``To me, this is heaven,'' he said.
Especially if the defense keeps playing well.
They want to become one of the better defenses in football,'' Edwards said.We're not that yet, but I think their aspirations are to become that, and they're doing a good job.''