In the small hours of Monday morning, left MetLife Stadium as a humbled team, humiliated at home, on national television, with the A.F.C. East lead at stake, by the rival , 37-16.
It was not even their worst defeat of the week, and it was not close, either. That distinction belongs to their flop on Thursday night against the , a fiasco that left the Jets panting and wheezing — and not because of the altitude. The 17-13 last-minute loss knocked them to the outskirts of the A.F.C. playoff picture, a place where other imperfect teams reside, but none that have done more than the Jets to sabotage their own seasons.
Even if the enduring memory is of ’s game-winning touchdown, which capped a 95-yard drive, the Jets did as much to lose this game as Tebow did to win it.
, who directed an offense that was 3 of 14 on third down and handed the Broncos 7 points with a critical third-quarter interception, called his night embarrassing. Awful special- teams play — a fumbled kickoff, a shanked punt, a long return allowed — underscored a systemic breakdown.
A defense that had allowed 75 yards on Denver’s previous 10 possessions suddenly forgot how to tackle, how to maintain assignments, how to win. It also collapsed on the Patriots’ final drive on Oct. 9, but at least then the Jets had to safeguard against the pass while they were being trampled by the run.
On Thursday, they knew the Broncos would rush, and so did everyone else at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. In hindsight, said Friday, he wished he did not call the all-out blitz on third down that Tebow recognized, processed and evaded, darting outside the Jets’ poor containment for a 20-yard touchdown. “Any bad feeling, we all had,” safety Eric Smith said.
In the stunned silence produced by such a crushing loss, the Jets did not want to think about the defeat’s impact on their playoff chances. Just worry about the next game, Santonio Holmes said. Without question it will be the Jets’ most important of the season. Buffalo (5-4) visits MetLife Stadium on Nov. 27, and the loser — especially if the fall Sunday at Miami — may as well start booking tee times.
When they played two weeks ago, the Jets won because they thwarted Fred Jackson, pressured Ryan Fitzpatrick and created three turnovers. They will need a similarly inspired performance from their defense again, if Sanchez’s play the last two games is any indication. Anyone watching him Thursday night could look beyond his 252 yards, his 60 percent completion rate (24 of 40), and see someone who struggled under pressure, made poor throws and bad decisions, and was upstaged by his counterpart.
When questioned about Sanchez’s development, Ryan often concludes his answers by referring to the past: the four road playoff wins, in particular, as if they grant him immunity from reproach. Sanchez’s good moments, like his 11 consecutive completions at one point on Thursday, are overshadowed by his critical mistakes, like the two interceptions returned for touchdowns in two games.
“This is our quarterback, he’s going to be our quarterback for as long as I’m here, which I hope is a long, long time,” Ryan said in a conference call. “He can make all the throws, he’s a competitive guy. Has it been perfect? No, absolutely. But it hasn’t been perfect for our entire team.”
The Jets’ imperfections have probably cost them a chance at the division title and the home playoff game they have long coveted. Their best hope of reaching the postseason, as things stand now, is to sneak in as the second wild-card team.
Over the last nine seasons, the A.F.C.’s wild-card teams have averaged 10.9 victories, with only 4 of the 18 winning as few as nine games. This season, in a conference that is competitive but not top-heavy, nine victories could be enough. More likely, the Jets would need 10. And to finish 10-6, they must win five of their final six games, a task that at present seems more daunting than the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour.
On the surface, their schedule is favorable: their remaining opponents — Buffalo, Washington, Kansas City, Philadelphia, the Giants and Miami — have a combined winning percentage of .426 (23-31); among the A.F.C.’s 12 playoff contenders, only New England (.338) and Houston (.382) have a friendlier setup the rest of the way. In all likelihood, the second-place finisher in the A.F.C. North will capture one berth, leaving the Jets competing with Buffalo, Tennessee, the third-place team in the North and, for the moment, all four teams in the West.
What truly hurts the Jets is that all of their losses have come against contending A.F.C. teams, ceding the head-to-head tiebreaker to presumptive division champion New England (6-3), Baltimore (6-3), Oakland (5-4) and, now, Denver (5-5).
“I don’t see any breathing room,” Ryan said. “We’ve already used that up.”