The lost to Chicago, , on Sunday. They lost the to New England. Yet mere minutes after the Jets sat slumped at their lockers, Washington toppled Jacksonville, delivering the Jets (10-5) a wild-card berth despite their fifth defeat.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson said. “It was like we lost, but we still won.”
Indeed. As Coach plowed through his postgame news conference, running back LaDainian Tomlinson, quarterback and several Jets assistants gathered around a small television in cramped quarters near the locker room. The escaped with a field goal in overtime, and Tomlinson bounded into the locker room. He shouted, “We’re in. We’re in,” as if, tight end Dustin Keller would say later, “it was his birthday and he just got a big gift.”
Players stood. They exchanged hugs and hand slaps. They yelled. They cheered. They celebrated as if the scoreboard had somehow changed. Only it had not.
Ryan heard all of this through the wall of the coaches’ office. He smiled.
“By the way,” he told reporters, “I think we’re in the playoffs.”
Not everyone shared in the good vibrations. Linebacker Bart Scott walked slowly toward the showers, head shaking in disgust. The Jets’ defense, Ryan’s defense, the unit that anchors this team’s identity, did not perform close to a level that justified jubilation.
Scott began listing all the issues, the 169 all-purpose yards surrendered to running back Matt Forte, the three touchdown passes thrown by quarterback Jay Cutler, the 21 points allowed in the third quarter, the miscommunication, the lack of execution. On one play, Scott said, the Jets sent only 10 defenders onto the field.
At a nearby locker, linebacker Calvin Pace shared Scott’s sentiment. He said the Jets played their worst quarter of the season after halftime Sunday.
“All that matters is we gave the game away,” Pace said. “That’s the bottom line.”
The game turned early into the third quarter, with the Jets ahead, 24-17, and facing a fourth-and-3 at their 40-yard line. All week, Ryan said special teams had practiced a certain fake punt, and despite the lead, despite the field position, they tried it.
Sanchez was in the backfield with the punter, took a direct snap and fired an incompletion. On the next play, Cutler lobbed a beautiful spiral down the right sideline to receiver Johnny Knox, who hauled it in for a 40-yard touchdown. Cutler would throw all three of his touchdowns in the third quarter, while the Jets’ defense seemed to take time off.
The failed fake changed everything. “I don’t know what they were thinking with that one,” Cutler said.
The Jets also inexplicably kicked to Devin Hester, who last week set the career record for most touchdown returns. Hester returned one punt 38 yards in the third quarter, setting up his own touchdown reception. Later in the quarter, he returned a kickoff 40 yards before Cutler delivered another touchdown pass to Knox.
The Jets managed a 34-yard field goal by Nick Folk early in the fourth, which cut the deficit to the final margin. In this season of stirring, last-second victories, Sanchez, for as well as he played Sunday, could not summon another comeback.
Still, Sanchez’s performance said something to his teammates. They watched as he marched through last week with torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder, as he rehabbed and rested and promised he would play. He looked sharp against Chicago’s (11-4) formidable defense, completing 24 of 37 passes for 269 yards, with one touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes and one interception that came on the Jets’ final possession.
“You see the pretty boy, the surfer image,” receiver Braylon Edwards said. “He’s tougher than that. Slowly but surely, he’s turning into the guy this organization needs.”
On offense, the Jets made progress. Ferguson continued to play at a Pro Bowl level. With help, he rendered the All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers a nonfactor. Running back Shonn Greene gained 70 yards on 12 carries, showing shades of his emergence around this time last year.
But this game also symbolized perhaps the most troubling aspect of these Jets. They remain a team that seems to trade progression (on offense) for regression (on defense and special teams). Other weeks, it works the other way. The elusive complete game remains just that.
“We’ve done it in spurts, in different phases,” Sanchez said. “We’re all going to have to do it at the same time if we’re going to make a run like we did last year.”
Ah, yes, last year. The Jets advanced to the A.F.C. title game as a wild card, poaching a pair of playoff victories on the road. As the team remained here Sunday night while a blizzard headed toward New York, they surely were reminded of that run.
If their latest defeat lingered a little less, so be it. The Jets’ last five playoff berths were clinched on the season’s final week. But not this one, not Sunday, not when the Jets somehow lost and won at the same time.