ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Sheldon Richardson never moved.
While his Jets teammates showered, dressed and gathered their things, the defensive tackle sat in front of his locker stall with his back to everyone. He stared blankly at the wall for what felt like hours. And then, finally, he hung his head.
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Ryan Fitzpatrick played one of his worst games of the season in his return to Buffalo, throwing three fourth-quarter interceptions to seal the Jets’ fate and a 22-17 Bills win Sunday. The loss, coupled with Pittsburgh’s 28-12 win in Cleveland, means the Jets (10-6) will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
And it was their former coach, Rex Ryan, who delivered the dagger.
“Yeah, we won 10 games, a big turnaround from last year,” Richardson eventually said in a nearly deserted locker room. “But it doesn’t matter because we got the same result. Done. Sixteen games.”
“It feels like the worst loss of my career, just because it was right there,” said tackle Breno Giacomini, who won a Super Bowl with Seattle two years ago. “It’ll probably take all the way until Week 1 to get over this. You just hurt for those guys. Worst of my career, for sure. This is terrible. A terrible feeling.”
The Jets had to contend with blistering cold, brutal winds and a Ryan defense — and proved to be their own worst enemy.
Ryan Quigley’s 21-yard punt to the Jets’ 25, a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty and an unsportsmanlike-conduct flag on rookie defensive lineman Leonard Williams were just a few of the breakdowns that led to a disappointing end to what had been a storybook season.
“We didn’t get it done,” coach Todd Bowles said.
“We just weren’t good enough,” linebacker Calvin Pace said.
The Jets lost control of the game from the opening quarter, but in the third they lost one of their biggest defensive stars, Pro Bowl-bound end Muhammad Wilkerson (broken leg).
The “FitzMagic” finally ran out, too. His grit and late-game heroics helped propel a five-game winning streak. But like every other season in his 11-year career, Fitzpatrick failed to reach the playoffs. Just like 10-year vet Brandon Marshall.
“All you can ask for in this game is just an opportunity. And as poorly as we played in the first quarter, we had an opportunity at the end to win the game,” said Fitzpatrick, who threw for 181 yards and two TDs for a Jets- record and career-high 31. His first pick was his first red-zone interception of the season.
Said Marshall: “I’m a little numb right now. Any team that’s going home right now, it’s a failure. We play for one reason. That’s to win it all.”
Buffalo (8-8) had nothing to play for, and yet it was the Bills who brought the defensive pressure and the energy en route to taking an early 13-0 lead.
A 17-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to Marshall cut the deficit to 13-7 in the second quarter and broke Vinny Testaverde’s Jets single-season record for TD passes (29, 1998). Late in the third, Fitzpatrick appeared to give the Jets new life when he connected with Eric Decker on a 21-yard TD pass to pull them within 19-17. But the momentum was short-lived.
On second-and-10 from the Bills’ 14, Fitzpatrick was picked off in the back of the end zone by Leodis McKelvin with 10:43 left in the game. Manny Lawson intercepted him with 1:51 to go. Fitzpatrick killed all hope of a comeback when A.J. Tarpley intercepted a pass with 11 seconds to play. On the previous play, Kenbrell Thompkins got behind the defense and had a chance for a 73-yard catch-and-run TD. But Mario Butler dislodged the ball from Thompkins’ hands near the Bills’ 35, and Thompkins couldn’t come down with it after it went up in the air.
The media descended upon Woody Johnson as soon as he emerged from his team’s locker room. Although he praised his players’ fight, the team’s owner was visibly frustrated.
“It’s a disappointing end of the season. That’s all I’m going to say,” Johnson said. “The players stuck together. They played hard. Just didn’t get it done up here. On to next year. We’ve got to be better next year.”
Asked if he is disappointed, he snapped, “What do you think?” before pushing through the crowd.