Last week, an upstart team packed its backs and traveled to play the conference-leading Tennessee Titans when few supposed it had any realistic chance of success. As it would turn out, the upstarts destroyed that Titans team, embarrassing it before its hometown crowd by a score of 34-13 and, in the process, securing for itself its new identity, equally coveted and dreaded, as “the team to beat.”
That team was the Jets. And after their celebrated destruction of Tennessee, it was said of the Titans that they had become too fat and too satisfied with their own success to appreciate the threat that a rising Jets team presented.
This week, in a rich irony, another upstart team packed its bags and traveled to play the newly anointed class of the AFC. And once again, the upstarts prevailed, this time demolishing the Jets before a cold, rain-soaked crowd by a nearly identical score of 34-17.
This was a stinging failure. And as is so often the case both in New York sports and in New York generally, it’s not long before post-failure analysis gives way to blame allocation. In this case, there was plenty to go around, starting with offensive coordinator Brian Schotteheimer, whose curious playcalling cost the Jets at least a touchdown as well as the early-game momentum.
Facing a driving rain storm and the league’s 26th-ranked rush defense on the opening drive of the game, Schottenheimer called a hybrid reverse to Jerricho Cotchery, whose sure hands proved no match for a slick ball that quickly hit the ground, bouncing backward and away from him. Cotchery appeared to cover the ball at the Jets’s 25-yard line, but as Broncos defenders pounced on him, the ball was jarred loose and scooped up by the Broncos’ Vernon Fox, who returned it for a 23-yard touchdown. The Jets attempted to challenge the play, but because the officials never ruled that Cotchery had possession of the ball during the apparent recovery, the play was declared unreviewable. 7-0, Broncos.
Of course, the box score will fault Cotchery both for botching the initial pitch and for failing to secure the ball after the fumble. But the real fault lay squarely at the feet of Schottenheimer, who called for ball-handling trickery, in horrible weather conditions, despite the fact that he had the AFC’s leading rusher matched up against one of the worst run defenses in the league.
The Jets would tie the game at 7-7 on the next drive, when Thomas Jones took the opening handoff from the Jets’ 41, burst through the right side and ran untouched along the sideline for a 59-yard touchdown, his longest run from scrimmage in over 900 carries. But the Broncos would quickly answer on the ensuing drive, when, on 2nd and 10 from their own 41, quarterback Jay Cutler fired a deep out along the right sideline for wide receiver Eddie Royal, who made the catch at the Jets’ 40 and over the outstretched arms of Ty Law.
The play ought to have been stopped then and there for a modest 20-yard gain, but safety Abram Elam played the pass too aggressively, trying to make a play on the ball rather than wrapping Royal up. As a result, Elam missed the tackle, and Royal ran down the sideline for a touchdown. The Jets challenged the touchdown after a replay appeared to show that Royal had stepped out of bounds while running down the sideline, but the call was upheld. 14-7, Broncos. The play would prove a portent of things to come for a beleaguered Jets secondary that had had no answer for Cutler or the talented receiving triumvirate of Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal, and tight end Tony Scheffler.
The Jets went three and out on the next series, and the Broncos took over once again at their own 41, where, on the first play from scrimmage, rookie running back Peyton Hillis gashed the Jets for a 19-yard burst up the middle and to the Jets’ 40. Hillis would gain another 10 yards on the drive before the Broncos settled for a 25-yard field goal from kicker Matt Prater to take a 17-7 lead with 1:48 remaining in the first quarter. The Jets answered on their next drive, opening play at their own 39 and mixing short runs and passes to advance to the Denver 29. On the next play, Thomas Jones knifed through the middle for what appeared to be a 5-yard gain before he was upended. But because Jones wound up on top of the would-be tackler and never touched the ground, he quickly bounced up and ran past a Broncos secondary for a 29-yard touchdown. The play was challenged but upheld. 17-14, Broncos.
The tide now appeared to be turning. And after the Jets forced a Broncos punt on the following drive, it seemed as if they were prepared to seize control of the game. They opened play at their own 19 and quickly picked up a first down on an 11-yard strike from Brett Favre to Cotchery. But on first down from his own 31, Favre lobbed a ball deep down the left side, overthrowing Laveranues Coles but finding Broncos cornerback Dre’ Bly for what appeared to be a relatively innocuous interception not appreciably distinct from a punt. It would soon prove otherwise.
The Broncos quickly marched down the field, mixing passes to Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler before capping the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run from Peyton Hillis, who carried three times for 26 yards on the drive. 24-14, Broncos.
Perhaps more than any of their other faults yesterday, the Jets’ shocking inability to stop Hillis, the converted fullback and seventh-round draft pick, proved their undoing. Hillis would go on to collect 129 yards on 22 carries against the Jets’ vaunted run defense.
Following a Jets three-and out on the next possession, the Broncos extended the lead further on a 35-yard field goal from Prater with just eight seconds remaining in the half. 27-14, Broncos. The game was over for the Jets, who would manage just three points in the second half.
What’s needed most after any loss—especially a New York loss–is proper perspective. Here, logic counsels that yesterday’s performance was not a disaster.
It was not the end of this team’s Super Bowl hopes, and it certainly wasn’t the “same old Jets.” It was a loss—-a disappointing loss to be certain, but a loss to a formidable, first-place team that had underperformed largely because of injury. The notion that the Jets, having beaten the Patriots and Titans in consecutive weeks, were going to sail through the remainder of their schedule unchallenged and unscathed was plainly unrealistic.
The Jets are not a great team. They’re a good team with adequate personnel. Their margin for error is not so wide as to leave them thinking that they can beat any team, whether it be the Broncos or the lowly Raiders, when they don’t play well.
This is not merely the truth about the Jets; it’s the truth about today’s NFL. Only last week, the Broncos team that blitzed the Jets was thrashed on its homefield by a horrid Raiders team. The modern NFL is not simply a year-to-year league; it’s a week-to-week league.
Thus far, the Jets have shown the ability both to beat the best and lose to the worst, but they need to understand that a dazzling victory or a deflating loss in the previous week will have nothing to say about the following week’s game. It’s this lesson, more than any other, that the Jets must learn if they are to advance far in the playoffs. And if this loss serves to further that understanding, it may well prove providential.