FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Rex Ryan has endured last-second comebacks in Denver and shutouts in San Diego, five-turnover debacles in Tennessee and blowouts in Cincinnati, but never has he been as livid after a loss, as bang-his-head-against-the-wall incensed, as he was late Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
What set off this bout of frustration, stunning in its rawness, was not just this defeat, by 27-25 to the New England Patriots, but everything that preceded it and, perhaps, all that is still to come. As Ryan roasted his defense and spit sarcastic responses, the five losses that preceded this one came rushing back, and so did the Jets’ last three at New England, by a total of 8 points, and so did, quite possibly, the potential consequences for their cumulative failure.
The Jets played their best game of the season on Thursday, far better than their record would suggest – rushing for 218 yards, outgaining New England by 423 to 323 over all, controlling the ball for nearly 41 minutes, not turning the ball over – but it was not good enough. They are 1-6, and 1-6 teams cling to the fantastical – stranger things have happened and all that – because, really, what else is there to talk about?
With this team, one thing above all: Ryan’s job security. It has hovered over the Jets ever since he agreed to a contract extension that essentially landed him in the same predicament as last season, and it grows more and more imperiled every week. His players realize it.
“We’re going to fight for him,” offensive lineman Breno Giacomini said.
On the field, they did. At the site of Ryan’s greatest triumph, a playoff victory in January 2011, the Jets scored on their first five possessions. They gouged the Patriots’ defense with a three-pronged rushing attack headlined by Chris Ivory, who ran 21 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. They came within inches first of tying the score, then of winning, late in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the night – after Geno Smith’s 2-point conversion attempt floated just beyond the outstretched hands of Jace Amaro, after Nick Folk’s 58-yard field-goal attempt as time expired was blocked by Chris Jones, whose penalty last season enabled the Jets to boot the winning kick – none of this provided consolation.
“This game, it was there,” Ryan said. “It was there for us.”
He added, “I know one thing, we’re going to keep fighting. And people that don’t understand it, they probably never put on those pads before. We’re going to fight our butts off. And it doesn’t matter who’s in front of us or whatever, we know we’re good enough to win.”
Forget about the last five games, his team kept saying. Forget about it all – the losses, the embarassment, the excrutiating corrosion of optimism – because on Thursday night, against the team they despise like no other, their season started anew.
That is how the Jets, and Ryan, chose to view their predicament. As if pride, or the spirit of the rivalry, could rescue them from the crippling despair that would accompany a sixth consecutive defeat.
The Jets seized the notion that anything can happen when they play New England, and anything almost did.
But the symbolism is striking: Once again, Ryan failed to beat New England. Five full seasons with the Jets, five division titles for the Patriots. And a sixth appears on the way.
“He wanted this,” receiver David Nelson said. “We all did.”
It was Nelson who on Tuesday asserted that the Jets had lost their swagger and their confidence. They came close to regaining it, and they knew it. Silence reigned in a locker room where, minutes earlier, Ryan had blistered the team.
In one corner, Amaro tormented himself by wondering aloud, What if? As in, what if he had turned his head a split-second quicker? Maybe he could have gotten a finger, a hand, on the ball, and hauled it in.
“I just missed it,” Amaro said.
In another corner, Antonio Allen accepted responsibility for two coverage breakdowns that led to Patriots touchdowns. The first, a 49-yarder to Shane Vereen, put New England ahead, 7-0, 1:09 into the game. The second infuriated Ryan perhaps more than any other play this season.
On 3rd-and-goal from the Jets’ 19, Allen dropped into zone coverage. As Tom Brady eluded pressure, rolling left, Allen took his eyes off Danny Amendola, who had floated behind him. That lapse gave Brady the time, and the space, to thread a pass on the run to Amendola, who caught the touchdown pass before Allen even turned his head back.
“You can’t make mistakes against New England, you just can’t,” linebacker Calvin Pace said. “But Tom Brady always finds a way. He finds that guy who’s open.”
Ryan, his voice dripping with sarcasm, added, “Just the greatest route in the history of the game, I think. We were shocked that he would run a route to the goal line.”
The Jets’ defense has allowed 20 touchdowns this season. Of those, 11 have come on third down. Including Amendola’s. Including Vereen’s 3-yarder in the second quarter.
These things tend to happen when the Jets face Brady, who threw for 261 yards and three touchdowns. Or Peyton Manning. Or Aaron Rodgers. Or any of the quarterbacks who shredded them these last six weeks, exposing the Jets’ secondary for 16 touchdowns and 275 yards per game, on 63.2 percent passing (134 of 212). Smith did not match Brady on the stat sheet – 20 of 34 passing for 226 yards and a touchdown – but he nearly beat him on Thursday. Impressing his teammates and coaches after a difficult two-week stretch that tested his maturity and viability as the Jets’ starter, Smith led an 80-yard touchdown drive to open the second half and, then, with 2:31 left, zipped a 10-yard scoring pass to Jeff Cumberland. The Jets trailed by 27-25, and hope flickered, certainly more than in previous installments of their Thursday night rivalry.
It being a Thursday and all, the Patriots took to social media to remind – mock? – the Jets of a seminal moment in their history, posting a photo on their official Twitter account of the infamous butt fumble from the Thanksgiving matchup two years ago.
Not to be outdone, the Jets responded by also conjuring a Thursday night memory. Just as they did here last September, the Jets blew an assignemnt on New England’s opening drive. Despite dropping eight defenders into coverage, the Jets failed to account for Vereen, who, after slipping 15 yards behind Allen and Phillip Adams, made a diving touchdown catch.
“I was like, ‘Oh, he’s open’ and then the ball was just going and I said, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Brady said.
Recognizing that time this week would be limited, some coaches worked ahead to develop the game plan. It did not include ceding a touchdown in the first 89 seconds. Unlikely, at least.
What seemed even less plausible, based on their struggles this season, was that the Jets’ offense would score on all four first-half possessions.
Out came Smith, and behind an inspired offensive line and the relentless churning of Ivory, the Jets marched up and down the field, amassing first downs and rushing yardage – everything, it seemed but touchdowns. Continuing a season-long pattern, they bumbled in the red zone. They failed to convert on both opportunities. A holding penalty on Oday Aboushi, making his first career start at left guard, negated a Smith touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley on the Jets’ opening series.
“We’ve got to finish,” Giacomini said. “We’ve got to knock that door down.” By the end of the first quarter, the Jets had doubled their entire rushing total (65 to 31) from last week. By halftime, they had quadrupled it. Ivory accounted for 69 of the 124, but Smith added 27, gaining first downs on three of his four scrambles.
Mobility, elusiveness, decisiveness — it was what they have wanted to see from Smith, and the Jets wondered why they have not. Smith operated the offense with confidence. He did not throw into coverage. He helped the Jets possess the ball for 22:03 of the first half, an ideal counter to the Patriots’ prolific offense.
Folk’s first three field goals put the Jets ahead by 9-7. The fourth, with 1:01 left before halftime, drew them to a 14-12 deficit before Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 39-yarder at the end of the half.
The Jets ran inside confident, certain. “All we had to do is go out and do what we’re doing: Play smart and get off the field,” Ryan said. They did play smart, just not smart enough. They did get off the field, just not quickly enough. And that is why Ryan walked into the interview room in a mood as nasty as the weather, and left it about 9 minutes later, seething still, perhaps never to return again.