Not the same old Jets, but they were close

I’m not sure what I expected from the New York Jets on Sunday.
New York Jets coach Todd Bowles, second from left, watches Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
New York Jets coach Todd Bowles, second from left, watches Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

I’m not sure what I expected from the New York Jets on Sunday.

Honestly, not this: A devastating loss that not only kept them from securing a playoff berth that seemed sure a week ago, but also raised as many questions as the last part of the season had seemed to answer.

Now the Jets’ season ends with the same debate it began with: Who will play quarterback?

Five months ago, the incumbent starter, Geno Smith, had his jaw broken in a locker-room brawl. The injury opened the door for Ryan Fitzpatrick, acquired in March, to step in, step up and have a career year.

Until Sunday.

Fitzpatrick threw touchdown passes to Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, but also threw three interceptions in the Jets’ 22-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

During a fourth-quarter drive for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown, Fitzpatrick, who had been confused throughout the game by the defenses devised by Bills coach Rex Ryan, was picked off in the end zone by cornerback Leodis McKelvin. And that was only the first interception.

After the game, McKelvin, who had been burned in the teams’ first meeting, said he made Fitzpatrick pay for going too often to the well. “It is a complicated league,” he said. “They did it again, and they paid for it.”

Complicated, indeed.

Fitzpatrick was grilled about that throw: Should he have thrown the pass away? (“In hindsight, that probably would have been the best thing to do.”) Did he see a wide-open Chris Ivory? (“I was reading the left side of the field; he was on the right side of the field.”) Then Fitzpatrick was asked what he told his teammates after the game.

“There’s not a whole lot of talking in there right now,” he said, adding, “It’s hard to come up with words.”

Fitzpatrick, an 11-year veteran, said, “It’s the hardest and most difficult end to a season I’ve ever had, in terms of how I feel right now and how painful a loss that was.”

He added, “At this point, it doesn’t feel like a very great season.”

When the Jets had cut the Buffalo lead to 19-17, on a Fitzpatrick-to-Decker touchdown pass late in the third quarter, there was the sense of inevitability that winning teams have — the sense that victory is at hand.

Linebacker Calvin Pace, mentioning how the collective mindset of the team had changed during the course of the season, said, “I knew in my heart of hearts that offense was going to find a way to get to the end zone, or kick a field goal, at least.”

Still, for all the optimism, the loss was not a complete surprise, and not because of some “same ol’ Jets” karma. The Jets’ running game was compromised by injuries that limited Ivory and Bilal Powell and left Steven Ridley to do more heavy lifting than he was used to. The opponent was a motivated Buffalo team with a familiar coach — Ryan — who had marched the Bills into MetLife Stadium in November and stolen a game.

After that game, an ecstatic Ryan compared being fired by the Jets last year to being jilted by a girlfriend “you had the hots for.”

But Buffalo followed that victory by losing four of their next five while the Jets soon got hot.

These “new” Jets made clutch plays, played smart and adopted coach Todd Bowles’ low-key manner. They let their deeds speak louder than their words.

Perhaps if Pittsburgh had won at Baltimore last week and the Jets had gone on to fall short of the playoffs despite a hard-fought performance at Buffalo, Jets fans could at least have sung the praises of an improved team that finished strong.

But the Steelers lost to the Ravens, giving the Jets the break they needed. No Jets fan could have been blamed for thinking that, finally, the team’s time had come.

I even allowed myself to think that the Jets, with a relatively healthy Fitzpatrick, might have a path to the Super Bowl, with potential AFC playoff opponents piecing together attacks around backup or backup-caliber quarterbacks. Cincinnati was missing Andy Dalton; Denver had no Peyton Manning.

The Jets had it all in front of them. Like the Mets, they could have had New York to themselves, at least for a week.

All they had to do was beat a scuffling Buffalo team.

Losing as they did Sunday, with a potential open road ahead of them, leaves a bitter taste. And it leaves Jets fans with some of the same concerns they had in July and August, about the Jets’ character and composure — and their quarterback.

“Any loss stings,” Bowles said. “It stings because it’s probably the last loss, so it’ll stay with you for a while. We’ll move on.”

During his introductory news conference last January, Bowles had talked about instituting a new mindset — a winning mindset.

“We have to teach them our culture,” he said then. “Not that the other culture was bad, but they didn’t win. So our culture is going to be to try to instill different things in them from a winning organization, from a different point of view, to make us go forward and get to the playoffs.”

A victory Sunday would have been a major step in that direction.

How will the Jets build on this bad ending?

“We’re a work in progress,” Bowles said. “And we’re growing. We’ve got a lot more growing to do, but we made some strides. We’ve just got to make more.”

There is hope, but for all of the optimism of the last few weeks, the result is the same: a fifth straight year without a spot in the postseason. There was a gigantic opportunity to take center stage; the Jets failed to seize the moment.

They are not the same old Jets — they won 10 games.

But without a playoff berth, they are similar.

Categories: Sports

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