Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
It was the punch line of a laugher, a touchdown play so effortless that it left the Jets all smiles on the sideline and the game all but over on the scoreboard.
And it illustrated where the Jets stand down the stretch of an unlikely season: peaking at the right time and acing what has been a complicated, season-long chemistry experiment.
Of course, there is no such thing as “easy” in the NFL. Even a 30-8 rout of the Titans at MetLife Stadium on Sunday — a victory that kept the Jets (8-5) in a three-way tie for the two AFC wild-card playoff spots — wasn’t easy.
But that was how they made it look, never more so than with 1:44 left in the first half, having just taken possession at their 31-yard line.
That was when three 30-something players with a combined 31 seasons in the NFL used their collective experience to give the Jets a 69-yard touchdown pass and a 27-0 halftime lead.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick noticed the Titans were not properly set and that no one was covering receiver Brandon Marshall near the right sideline. Marshall noticed, too.
And center Nick Mangold sensed Fitzpatrick moving out of the shotgun formation and toward the line, ready for a quick snap to enable a quick throw to Marshall.
Tennessee ended up with 6-1, 305-pound lineman Jurrell Casey chasing Marshall. Not a good matchup for the visitors.
“That’s just our very basic formation, and they just kind of messed it up,” Fitzpatrick said.
Said Mangold: “It appeared to be confusion on their side. I didn’t quite see everything, but I could feel Fitz kind of coming up to the line, and as soon as he did that, alarm bells went off.”
The Titans said their headsets were out and there was uncertainty while they waited for a call to come in. Coach Mike Mularkey said, however: “That doesn’t give us any reason not to still cover an uncovered receiver.”
Marshall credited Mangold with recognizing what was going on and adjusting his snap. After that, it “was a really easy touchdown. And I’ll take it, man.’’
So will the rest of the Jets, now with three victories in a row. Every player noted how much work is left to be done, but there is no denying their collective arrow is pointing up.
It starts with Fitzpatrick, who has thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past three games. But he has had plenty of help.
On the Jets’ tone-setting first drive, Marshall saved a third-and-10 from the Tennessee 28 with a timely stiff-arm of the Titans’ B.W. Webb, and on the next play, Fitzpatrick hit Eric Decker from 16 yards out for a touchdown.
It was that kind of afternoon, with the Jets heating up in concert with the warmest Dec. 13 on record in these parts.
This has gone too far now for the Jets and their fans to be satisfied with a winning season that falls short of the playoffs. So the next three games are everything.
“This is why we play the game,” Fitzpatrick said. “The games we’re playing right now, that’s what all the work is for.”
Asked what it feels like to be 8-5, linebacker David Harris said, “I mean, that’s all it is: 8-5. We still have three games to go. So come see me Jan. 4.”
That would be the day after the regular-season finale in Buffalo. If the Jets are celebrating that day, one memorable step on their path will be a serendipitous mid-December play that required recognizing something that can’t be practiced.
It was a simple matter, Fitzpatrick said, of “just three guys, me, Nick and Brandon, being on the same page.”
Mangold said Fitzpatrick did voice a call to tip him off, “but the force is strong with that one and you could just feel it.”
So what, exactly, did he feel? “The force. You’re not a believer there, are you?”
At this point, how can we not be?