Herm Edwards certainly isn't coaching for his job on Sunday, or for a championship. But this will be his early signature game at St. Louis, the sort of contest that will define his first four seasons here in New York.

It's simple, really, and Edwards keeps saying so. The Jets win against a flawed defensive unit and they will be 11-5, a playoff team for the third time in four years. Maybe they aren't an elite club yet or haven't set the world on fire since November. Maybe their quarterback is still searching for the old magic, nursing a sore arm and fiddling clumsily with his public posture.

But the franchise has never before been to the postseason three of four times, and if Edwards pulls this off then the reservoir of good will spills over the banks. Everybody likes Edwards: His owner, who gave him a two-year extension last year through 2007. His players. The fans. The media.

He is the anti-Coughlin in this way. Everybody is lined up, always hoping he succeeds. But Edwards needs to add some consistent winning to the resume, or he will never be Bill Parcells or Joe Torre around here. The Jets must show they can go out and win an important game, again, the way they did at the end of the 2001 and 2002 seasons.

Again, this is no great trade secret. Edwards met with the team yesterday, showed them a few ugly highlights from Sunday's game, and then told them they've run out of time and excuses. They can't hope that Denver or Buffalo loses this weekend, against opponents who don't care. Even if it turns out that way, the Jets shouldn't sneak into the playoffs through the side door.

"We don't need charity," Edwards insisted yesterday. "You want to win going into the playoffs."

That was about it, though, with the speeches. Edwards said he wasn't going to "rant and rave." No pep rally. He wouldn't dwell on the disheartening, systemic failure against New England. He applied football's famous 24-hour rule, the law that says anything more than a day old doesn't mean a thing.

The NFL is about immediate gratification. Edwards knows what this next Sunday is about. If the Jets lose in the dome, if they don't even make the playoffs, then this season officially will have become a mess.

The Jets can talk all they want about the 10 victories, about double digits, about being in a tough conference and in a division with the Patriots. If they lose this game on Sunday, they will have thrown away a 5-0 start that was built on fragile victories of eight points or less. They surely will fire their offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, who may be a goner anyway.

Hackett's offense is supposed to be terribly predictable against some teams, the good ones. Funny thing about that: Most offensive coordinators have problems with these very same defenses.

But there are problems, that's clear. There have been times, on fourth and short, when the head coach has shown his own distrust in the offense. The personal relationship between Edwards and Hackett is anybody's guess, but we see little evidence of a bond on the field.

Edwards knows he's going to have to be aggressive against the Rams, and it will be easier to go for it on fourth and short against a defense that can't stop the run.

"We're going to have to be in the 20s, maybe the 30s," Edwards said about his offensive production.

The coach promises his team will do that, that the Jets will win this game. "It's your mind-set. A matter of not being denied," Edwards said yesterday. "I believe these players are going to get it done."

The Jets are nowhere close to being a great team. Their quarterback is having problems, their defense isn't as good as some of their gaudy early-season stats. They won't march into Pittsburgh, New England or Indianapolis to win a playoff game. Even San Diego is very iffy.

If the Jets win on Sunday in St. Louis, then the season is something to build on next year, when there are never any guarantees. If they fail, they will own a losing record, 5-6, over the final 11 weeks of the season. They will have missed the playoffs two straight seasons, which is a lousy way for Edwards to head into 2005.

"Basically, it's a playoff game for us," Edwards said.

Maybe their Super Bowl.

Originally published on December 28, 2004