Sure, it’s possible those two plays might not have mattered in the long run. The Bengals are the defending Super Bowl runners-up, after all, and they walked into MetLife Stadium salty and focused, sitting 0-2, smarting after back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh and Dallas, knowing the steep odds against teams who start 0-3 making the playoffs.
And the Bengals mostly did as they pleased Sunday afternoon at MetLife, routing the Jets 27-12, muffling the buzz the fans had brought into the building with them after last week’s stunning comeback win in Cleveland.
Two bookend penalties, in either half, showed why the Jets — who have intriguing pieces on both sides of the ball — are still a flawed whole product. Both of them were unnecessary roughness penalties, meaning both of them were avoidable — which is another way of saying that both of them were inexcusable.
First quarter: The Jets had just sliced the Bengals’ lead to a skinny point, 7-6, and the defense had risen up and stopped Cincinnati, forcing Joe Burrow out of the pocket on third down, forcing an incompletion, halting the Bengals’ offensive machine. This should have been a huge statement.
Instead, there was a flag. John Franklin-Myers pushed Burrow after he released the ball, then compounded the mistake by falling, all 289 pounds of him landing on Burrow. Maybe that’s an inconsequential play in 1975. But everyone knows it isn’t 1975; it’s 2022. You can’t do that. Three plays later, Burrow hit Tyler Boyd for 56 yards and a 14-6 lead.
“We were both surprised they called that,” Franklin-Myers said, before conceding: “It’s a bang-bang play. But I have to be better than that.”
“If it’s ticky-tack or not,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said, “he doesn’t have to do that.”
Still, to the Jets’ credit, they were still within two scores of the Bengals two quarters later, 27-12. They were deep in Cincinnati territory. The crowd was engaged …
(… and everywhere else, Jets fans were seized with fury as the CBS feed simply disappeared. Almost 54 years after the Heidi Game, the Jets were mini-Heidi-ed. And maybe it speaks to a different day that Jets fans were actually angry when the feed went down, instead of grateful …)
And then Corey Davis, after being targeted by a Joe Flacco pass that was incomplete, started arguing with Bengals safety Eli Apple. That might have been fine. But then Davis raised his hand … and here came another flag. There went another 15 yards. And there, for all practical purposes, was the game.
“It’s two guys jawing back and forth,” Saleh said. “If he keeps his hands down, nothing would’ve happened. But he grabbed their player’s helmet.”
And then, as if to summarize the day: “He’s got to be smarter.”
Said Davis: “It hurts.”
Again, this was about more than two plays. Flacco ran for his life most of the day, which re-emphasized the need for the Jets’ crying need for competent offensive line play and also inspired some cries for Mike White and his younger, more mobile legs. The Jets had Burrow on the run a bunch, too, but could never quite get him for a big loss. And the secondary kept getting burned.
It isn’t losing to the Bengals that’s the pity. It’s how they lost to the Bengals.
The Bengals are better than the Jets. It’s hard to argue otherwise, but these Jets are also better than last year’s Jets, better than the Jets of recent vintage. They have better players. They have more playmakers. They are still short when they play a team like the Bengals — again, defending AFC champs — so they need to rely on keeping mistakes to a minimum.
“We still had our opportunities,” Saleh said.
They did. There is enough here — especially if Zach Wilson is able to hit the ground running, which might happen as early as next week in Pittsburgh — to expect better than the Jets have shown us in years. They will win some games this year if they can honor that — and, frankly, if the coaches can drill into them the importance of maintaining their composure.
They didn’t do that Sunday. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered. Maybe the Bengals, desperate for victory, bursting with urgency, were going to make their way back to the airport with a win, even without the help.
Still … it would’ve been nice to find out.
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