Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
It would have been a ridiculous, inexcusable loss, the sort of thing that happens even to good NFL teams now and then but that the Jets could not afford to have happen at this late stage.
And it might have turned out to be exactly that kind of night earlier this year, especially during the Jets’ seemingly long-ago midseason slump.
But not now, not to these Jets, who feel better about themselves by the week, even in a week when they did what good teams do: beat an inferior opponent even when they played like an inferior version of themselves.
“These are the kinds of games we were losing in the first half of the year or middle of the season that we’re starting to win now, so I’m happy about that,” coach Todd Bowles said after a 19-16 victory over the Cowboys on Saturday night at AT&T Stadium that improved the Jets’ record to 9-5 and extended their winning streak to four.
When someone noted that the Jets nearly blew the game, Bowles responded with a bit of a Yogi-ism: “You don’t ‘nearly blow a game’ when you win ’em. You blow ’em when you lose ’em.”
Fair enough. But they very nearly did blow a game against a now 4-10 train wreck that started with Matt Cassel at quarterback, gave up on that idea after he threw a memorably ridiculous interception and switched to Kellen Moore, who threw three more.
The Jets helped the Cowboys with untimely penalties, a missed extra point, a missed field goal, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s first interception in four games and a general malaise that did not fully lift until Randy Bullock kicked a 40-yard field goal with 36 seconds left to win it.
Blech. But much better than the alternative. Bowles referred to a similar victory over the Giants two weeks earlier: “You have to win the tough, gritty ones and we’ve won two of them now. So we’re building some character.”
Character, yes, but also resourcefulness. Arguably the two biggest plays were receptions by players who are not Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker.
Quincy Enunwa made a nifty catch on a third-and-14 pass from Fitzpatrick that set up a 3-yard TD pass from Fitzpatrick to Decker with 8:58 left that gave the Jets a 16-13 lead.
Then Kenbrell Thompkins, who entered the night with 11 receptions this season, caught a 43-yard pass that set up Bullock’s winner after the Cowboys had tied it with 1:55 left.
“Sometimes we may need them, fourth quarter, overtime, it may be just one play,” Marshall said of Enunwa and Thompkins. “We talk about it all the time, everybody just buying in and doing their job.”
Thompkins, who had advised Fitzpatrick to be on the lookout for him when Dallas was in a cover-2 defense, said, “I’m just honored to be in the locker room with these guys.”
Said linebacker Calvin Pace: “In these types of games, you have to find a way. You have to keep grinding. Kenbrell Thompkins made a big play. That’s what it takes, man.”
Now what? Now they wait to see if they get some help today when their rivals for AFC wild-card playoff spots, the Chiefs and Steelers, try to match them with nine wins.
Marshall insisted he would spend all day in church and not focus too closely on what those teams do, but he did finally admit he will be keeping an eye on them.
For most of Saturday night’s game, it appeared the Jets would be keeping an eye on them from behind rather than a half-game ahead against a lousy Cowboys team.
“It was a big stadium, but it wasn’t a big team,” defensive end Sheldon Richardson said.
The Jets looked like guys who had spent too much time the previous week reading and hearing how good they were.
That they won anyway indicates they are pretty good after all. But there still is work to do.
Said Marshall, “We can’t hang from the rafters right now because we have a little win streak.”
Next up: the Patriots.