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Jets can’t slip up again in playoff race after calamity vs. Lions

All season, the members of the Jets’ defense have insisted that they live for moments exactly like this one. And all season, as often as not, when a game has been there to be won those players have risen to that task. So here was another game. Here was another moment.

It was fourth-and-1, the ball resting on the Lions’ 49-yard line. There hadn’t been a lot of art to this game, or a lot of grace, but the Jets still led by four points in a game they needed as much as oxygen. Make a play, one play, and they could hand the ball over to the offense to bleed the clock and officially enter into Jimmy Valvano’s survive-and-advance mindset.

One play.

“That’s all we want,” cornerback D.J. Reed would say later. “We want to be in that situation.”

In a few weeks, we may look at that moment as the high-water mark of the season, the Jets 120 seconds away from an eighth win, 120 seconds away from making an essential inroad on the pathway to the playoffs, embracing the pathology of prosperity.

And we might look at the 11 seconds that followed as the silver bullet that ended it all: Detroit QB Jared Goff faking a handoff, sitting in the pocket behind an offensive line that never once all day allowed a Jets defender to have a hint at what flavor gum Goff was chewing. Tight end Brock Wright made his block, squeezed out to the left, and couldn’t have been more wide open if he’d been walking in Central Park at dawn.

Touchdown. Ballgame. Season.

“Devastating,” Reed would say. “Just devastating.”

Zach Wilson walks off the field after the Jets’ loss to the Lions on Sunday.
Corey Sipkin

It was. It is. Forget whatever modest projections were affixed to the Jets in July and August. It is December, and they were in control of their playoff destiny, at home, knowing that a win was an essential part of the equation to keep playing games into the middle of January. There hasn’t been a game that’s felt this important in the Jets’ precinct of MetLife Stadium in years.

And what followed was an inexplicably flat, inexcusably haphazard 60 minutes of football in which everyone played a part in the team’s doom.

The special teams allowed an early punt-return touchdown — second in four games — and the Jets were chasing the rest of the way. The running game was absent: 50 yards all day. Zach Wilson had fine numbers — 317 yards passing, two touchdowns — but threw a horrible pick in the third that put the Jets back in a 13-10 hole. The defense played fine for 58 minutes before completely falling down on the job. Head coach Robert Saleh made curious use of his timeouts late, as if he could roll them over like vacation days into 2023.

Up and down the field, up and down the roster. Team effort. Team loss.

Team calamity.

“You want to pride yourself on closing the game out,” Saleh said, and that was probably the thing that was making the truest of the 76,076 true believers grumble the loudest as they exited MetLife and began the long slog home.

Said linebacker Quincy Williams, correctly: “We beat ourselves.”

“We have to let this go,” said tight end C.J. Uzomah, who caught both of Wilson’s touchdown throws. “We have to be ready for Thursday. It’s a do-or-die game.”

Detroit Lions tight end Brock Wright (89) celebrates his game-winning touchdown with quarterback Jared Goff.

The hard truth is, that’s 100 percent right. The Jets have forfeited every ounce of whatever margin for error they may have harbored and now have to run the table their final three games. And the way they’ve played in what is now a three-game losing streak that’s turned the glare of 7-4 into the gloom of 7-7, it feels every bit as likely that the three teams they face — home Thursday to Jacksonville, at Seattle, at Miami — could run the table on them.

Unless something changes in the skinny space of four days.

“The guys were fighting,” said Wilson, who was better than he’s been and helped put the Jets in position late in the fourth to steal the game. “They fought all game.”

Jets wide receivers Elijah Moore (8) and Braxton Berrios (10) react after the Detroit Lions defeated the Jets 20-17.
Bill Kostroun

Not good enough. Not now. Maybe in August showing fight and feistiness in December would’ve seemed like a reasonable goal. But not after 7-4. The Jets have done a lot of good things this year. They’ve also left too many opportunities on the field, too many games that could have gone their way and didn’t.

Seven-and-seven isn’t good enough. Seven-and-seven means the do-or-die portion of the season begins at once, and nothing short of perfection will do. It’s a hard way to survive in the NFL, and it was so unnecessary. Make one play, the whole conversation is different.

“The loss only amplifies the next three,” wideout Garrett Wilson said. “We can’t lose.”

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