ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. â€” The opportunity the Jets had been awaiting for a year arrived Sunday, and they seized it as if grasping at a tornado. The game spun away from them, kicking up everything they wanted, everything they craved, until it was gone â€” all of it.
After losing, 22-17, to the Buffalo Bills â€” a result that, coupled with Pittsburghâ€™s victory at Cleveland, eliminated them from playoff contention â€” the Jets trudged off the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium and through the tunnel that led to their locker room. Once inside, they listened to their coach, Todd Bowles, deliver his final postgame address of the season.
â€œWe win together,â€ Bowles told them. â€œWe lose together.â€
When the locker room opened to the news media, many players were still in uniform, dazed by the finality of it all.
They had seen one star defensive player, Muhammad Wilkerson, break his leg in the third quarter, and another, Darrelle Revis, falter in coverage all game against Sammy Watkins. They had watched Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose poise and precision during a five-game winning streak ushered the Jets to the precipice, throw three interceptions in the final 10 minutes 43 seconds. They struggled to reconcile the worst 10-6 season of their careers.
â€œWe just picked a bad day to have a bad game,â€ linebacker Calvin Pace said.
With a victory Sunday, the Jets would have claimed their first playoff berth in five seasons. But there will be no postseason for the Jets, who were defeated by their former coach Rex Ryan.
For six seasons, Ryan schemed to prod the Jets into the playoffs. On Sunday, he strove to keep them out, and the prospect delighted him.
He concocted clever blitz packages and tried trick plays and twice went for it on fourth down, converting both times. Ryanâ€™s limitations as coach ended his tenure with the Jets, but give him one game to fashion a clever defensive strategy, amid swirling winds and frigid temperatures, and he can do it.
Fitzpatrickâ€™s first turnover, a pick in the end zone by Leodis McKelvin with the Jets trailing by 19-17, ruined the Jetsâ€™ best scoring chance. On their next two series, which ended in interceptions, the Jets never reached midfield.
â€œItâ€™s a disappointing end of the season; thatâ€™s all Iâ€™m going to say,â€ the owner Woody Johnson said. â€œThe players stuck together. They played hard, just didnâ€™t get it done up here. On to next year. Weâ€™ve got to be better next year.â€
Never before in his nomadic 11-year career had Fitzpatrick led a team this far. He jogged onto the field buoyed by his teammatesâ€™ faith but weighed on by miserable experiences facing defenses coached by Ryan. In nine career starts against those teams, Fitzpatrick is 1-8 with a 48.2 completion percentage. His lone victory was in the 2012 season finale, his last game with Buffalo.
CreditKevin Hoffman/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
â€œMy heart hurts so bad right now for all those guys in the locker room,â€ said Fitzpatrick, who completed 16 of 37 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns. He added, â€œItâ€™s the hardest and most difficult end to a season Iâ€™ve ever had in terms of how I feel right now.â€
The scope of the Jetsâ€™ self-destruction harked back to the end, and the middle, of the Ryan era: senseless penalties, wasted timeouts, feeble offense, messy substitutions, poor special teams, drops upon drops, a 16-7 halftime deficit.
All the good karma the Jets had cultivated last week â€” from the Steelersâ€™ stumble at Baltimore and the Patriotsâ€™ coin-toss decision that awarded the Jets the ball to start overtime â€” retreated on Sunday.
The Jetsâ€™ first third-down conversion came 43 minutes into the game, on a drive that ended with an Eric Decker touchdown that cut the Billsâ€™ lead to 19-17 with 1:10 left in the third quarter. When Buffalo punted on its ensuing possession, optimism reigned on the Jetsâ€™ sideline.
â€œIâ€™ve seen that picture before,â€ Pace said, â€œand I knew in my heart of hearts that the offense would find a way to get in the end zone.â€
In late comeback victories against the Giants, Dallas and New England, Fitzpatrick operated with maximum efficiency, and he did so again, guiding the Jets to the Buffalo 14. On second down, the Jets ran a play that required Decker to run a post route. Washington had run it against the Bills and scored a touchdown. Decker felt confident in it.