The Jets found themselves caught between emotions Sunday. They , completing a season with at least 11 victories for the fourth time in franchise history and the first time since 1998. Yet as the final seconds ticked away, their sideline remained subdued.
Perhaps this stemmed from a meaningless victory produced mostly by backups. Or perhaps it came from the shaky performance the Jets put forth over the past month. Regardless, shortly after the organization took a victory lap around New Meadowlands Stadium, linebacker Bart Scott surveyed the locker room and said, “You don’t see anybody doing back flips.”
With that, the Jets headed back to the playoffs, back to Indianapolis, where their season ended in the A.F.C. title game a year ago. The Jets’ success with Coach and quarterback — 20 regular-season victories and 2 playoff berths in two years — is often lost amid the chaos and controversy that have defined their tenure. But not this time.
Ryan stepped into his postgame fishbowl filled with the confidence that had diminished over the past month. He mentioned the at least five times, each time in the context of winning it despite the Jets’ status as the A.F.C.’s sixth seed. His words were echoed in the locker room by defensive lineman Trevor Pryce, who said: “We feel like this is the just the beginning of what we can accomplish. Right now. This season.”
Against Buffalo (4-12), the Jets acted as if they were hosting a preseason game, not a season finale. Their starting quarterback (Sanchez) played one possession and did not throw a pass. Their top running backs (LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene), starting cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie), starting safety (Eric Smith) and starting right tackle (Damien Woody) traded pads for parkas, all inactive, relegated to the sideline.
A bevy of backups did the heavy lifting. The backup quarterback threw two touchdown passes, his first in five seasons. The rookie running back Joe McKnight rushed for a career-high 158 yards and still dripped sweat as he took questions. Their defense forced six turnovers and limited the to 162 yards of offense.
After a week of breathless debate — to play, not to play, how much — Sanchez made an uneventful cameo in the first quarter. The entirety of his afternoon consisted of handing the ball off. Sanchez took the field for nine plays, all handoffs.
Once, he handed to fullback John Conner. Eight times, including on one play negated by a holding penalty, he handed to McKnight. On third downs, Brad Smith replaced Sanchez, just as Brunell would late in the first quarter, before Kellen Clemens entered the game in the second half.
Sanchez spent the rest of the afternoon on the sideline, a baseball cap atop his head. He said he knew early in the week that he would play sparingly Sunday. He wanted to prepare the same way, keep the same routine, maintain the momentum the offense culled in the previous two weeks. He said the game “went as scripted.”
Tight end Dustin Keller provided a different analysis. He said that Sanchez “handed the heck out of the ball.”
In his place, the Jets produced their strangest scoring summary this season. They received touchdowns from a backup cornerback (Marquice Cole), their starting wide receivers (Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards), their third-string quarterback (Clemens) and their backup fullback (Conner).
In the process, the Jets evened their record at 2-2 over the past four weeks. They finished Ryan’s second season with two more victories than in his first. Jason Taylor even tied for eighth on with No. 132 ½. Beyond that, the Jets did not, could not, find much meaning Sunday.
Instead, they found comfort in victory because it beat the alternative, because Super Bowl participants own a collective 14-6 record on the final day of the regular season since 2000, because several injured players rested and took a step closer to full health.
“We feel good about where we’re at,” Ryan said. “This football team is ready. There’s no excuses.”
Afterward, Ryan said the Jets prepared last week as if they would play this coming Saturday. He did not want the coming week to feel like a short one.
Despite the madness of this season, the players continue to insist that this team, compared with last season’s, is deeper, more talented, better positioned for a postseason run. They point to the Jets’ 6-2 record on the road this season, to the offense’s playing its best football in December, to the experience they earned during last season’s run.
“We have everything we need to get it done,” cornerback Dwight Lowery said.
Sanchez was the last Jet to leave the locker room. He tugged on his dress shirt and cuff links, twisted a Windsor knot on his tie and tugged a jacket over that still sore and valuable right shoulder. He then fielded questions without shoes or pants.
In his incomplete outfit, Sanchez addressed this incomplete season. The real work begins this week.