EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. left ’ empty locker room and shuffled toward the stadium exits. He walked slowly and alone. He wore a black jacket, a full beard and the familiar look of resignation that the Jets don often this time of year.
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that was as close as it was disheartening.
“It’s a microcosm of our year,” safety Kerry Rhodes said. “We lose games that we shouldn’t lose.”
Afterward, the Jets moved through their locker room like zombies, their season in the graveyard. Technically, they could still make the playoffs, and Denver’s surprising loss opened up another narrow avenue. Realistically, the way they played, no way.
The longest-tenured Jet, defensive end , and the newest arrival, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, each bolted from the locker room. Coach needed a few seconds to compose himself before he answered questions while his eyes welled with tears.
Even the Falcons were at a loss for words. Their quarterback, Matt Ryan, spotted a former teammate, Ben Hartsock, now a Jets tight end. “How are the kids?” Ryan finally blurted, referring to Hartsock’s two daughters, stumbling over the words.
“Fine, thanks,” Hartsock said, before the two resumed an awkward silence.
The shock came from the way everything unfolded over the past month, as the Jets resuscitated their season, winning three straight, climbing to 7-6, breathing, albeit barely. At that point, tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson started dreaming. It felt, he said, as if the stars were aligning, like the playoff berth that once seemed impossible was possible again.
The Jets had tied three teams for the final playoff spot. Then Jacksonville lost on Thursday. Then Miami fell Sunday afternoon, each domino following the next. “It felt like this was our second chance, like we were granted this opportunity at another season,” Ferguson said. “It didn’t end like the fairy tale I envisioned.”
It ended with three interceptions from the young and consistently inconsistent . It ended with three missed field goals from a unit normally counted as dependable. It ended when tight end Tony Gonzalez lined up on fourth down late in the fourth quarter and thought to himself, “Oh, my God, they are going zone.”
All game, the Jets had bumped Gonzalez at the line of scrimmage and bottled his usual production with man coverage. There, they ran what players called a loaded zone. Expecting Gonzalez to get the ball, the Jets attempted to bracket him, with one defender inside, another outside and a third stationed behind.
Jets fullback Tony Richardson counts Gonzalez as his best friend in football. He married Gonzalez and his wife. Over the last 13 seasons, Richardson has seen Gonzalez make dozens of these plays, and he made another Sunday, finding the hole in the zone for a 2-yard score that put the Falcons ahead for good.
The Jets might have entered this game with the league’s top-ranked defense, but another late score continued this season’s most disappointing defensive trend. For as fearsome as the Jets have played defensively, they have also allowed late, decisive scores in five of their losses twice against Miami, Buffalo, Jacksonville and now Atlanta.
“That’s our Achilles’ heel,” safety said. “We haven’t gotten a stop when the game was on the line. If we’re going to be as great as we think we can be, that can’t happen once, let alone five times, or whatever.”
But this loss did not rest solely on the defense. In fact, the Jets played complementary football, just not in the way they would like. Instead, each of three phases made game-blowing mistakes.
Three times, place-kicker Jay Feely trotted out to attempt a field goal. Three times, the field-goal unit failed to provide a proper setup. Long snapper James Dearth guessed that his first snap went low and inside and that his third snap sailed high.
Holder Kellen Clemens also took the blame, saying he dropped the first attempt.
Regardless, Feely did not get a kick off on the first attempt. He missed the second one wide right. The third was blocked.
“I didn’t do my job,” Dearth said, echoing Feely and Clemens.
Then there was Sanchez. He returned from a one-game injury absence to complete 18 of 32 passes for 226 yards and a 49.7 quarterback rating. His first interception set up the Falcons’ field goal, and his second and third interceptions stopped Jets drives.
Sanchez did manage a 65-yard touchdown strike to Edwards, who outran a cornerback in single coverage on a post route and scampered untouched into the end zone for a 7-3 lead in the first quarter.
From there, the Jets’ offense moved the ball but did not score. The Falcons’ offense mostly sputtered, only to score when it mattered most. This was Jets History 101, same old or whatever fans want to call it.
Even Sanchez learned that Sunday. Running back Thomas Jones said: “Anytime you don’t make the plays you need to make, when they’re right there in front of you, you don’t have anybody to blame but yourself. We have nobody to blame but us.”