NASHVILLE, Tenn. - This was a game the Jets had to have. And Mark Sanchez blew it.
With his team's playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the starting quarterback -- the guy selected each week ahead of Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy -- threw four interceptions and lost a fumble with 43 seconds left to seal a 14-10 loss to the Titans last night.
The Jets' only hope of reaching the playoffs was to win out, but for the third time this season, they came up painfully small on national television. "It hurts beyond belief," Rex Ryan said.
After Bilal Powell caught a short pass and gutted his way 9 yards for a first down at the Titans' 23, Sanchez's final pick came with 1:51 left. He inexplicably threw a pass intended for tight end Jeff Cumberland into quadruple coverage and Michael Griffin intercepted it at the 2.
But somehow, some way, Sanchez got another shot at redemption. He blew that one, too.
From the end zone, Brett Kern got off a 19-yard punt that went out of bounds, giving the Jets tremendous field position at the Titans' 25 with 47 seconds left. But on the first play, Sanchez couldn't handle a low snap from Nick Mangold and fumbled the ball away. Powell inadvertently kicked it to his right, and the Titans' Zach Brown recovered.
"It was a miracle that we even had a chance to win at the end," linebacker Calvin Pace said.
A solemn Sanchez stood behind the lectern after the game, fielding questions in clipped, monotone sound bites. Even after an abysmal outing that featured a halftime passer rating of 16.7 -- he eventually lifted it to 32.6 -- Sanchez had a chance to be the hero. It didn't happen.
"It doesn't feel good hurting your team like that," he said when asked if this game was his lowest moment. "That's not a winning formula, so it never feels good. Where it ranks on the scale, I don't know."
He finished 13-for-28 for 131 yards with one touchdown pass, five turnovers and three sacks. He has 13 TD passes, 17 interceptions and 24 turnovers in 2012.
The stage had been set for the Jets (6-8) to make a statement. Ryan's team had everything to play for against the Titans (5-9) -- and everything to lose. And now the Jets have missed out on the playoffs for a second straight season. Said Ryan: "This isn't where I thought this football team would be."
But this was a quintessential 2012 Jets performance. It featured an above-average defense that struggles to stop the run and a quarterback who systematically disrupts his own offense.
What proved to be the winning touchdown was scored with 20 seconds left in the third quarter. Five plays after throwing a 21-yard pass to Michael Preston, quarterback Jake Locker scored on a 13-yard run to put the Titans ahead 14-10.
It was the type of play the Jets had envisioned all season long for Tebow. But instead, their No. 2 quarterback -- who was activated over McElroy for a second straight week -- added little in this barely watchable affair.
The Jets thought they would outsmart the rest of the league by acquiring Tebow to add explosiveness to their ground-and-pound attack. But it hasn't worked out that way.
The Jets, who waited 15 weeks to give Tebow his first full offensive series, derailed their own momentum by inserting him at the most inopportune times.
Heading into the game, Ryan decided Tebow would get the Jets' third series -- no matter the quarter, no matter the score. But aside from a 12-yard run, there was little success on that drive for Tebow. To make matters worse, he relieved Sanchez early in the third after the starter threw back-to-back completions of 11 and 22 yards. The result: Tebow fumbled the football out of the shotgun, although it was recovered by Shonn Greene. The Jets wound up punting.
Asked if he thought Tebow's insertion disrupted Sanchez, Ryan said: "That's for you guys to formulate your own opinions . . . I think when you go in, whenever your number's called, you go in and do your job."
So for another week, the identity of the Jets' starting quarterback is a mystery -- even though the next two games mean very little to a team with once-high playoff hopes. "I'm not ready to say who will be our quarterback next game," Ryan said. "I am not ready to do that."
The Jets were the first to score, courtesy of a 22-yard field goal by Nick Folk after an apparent 4-yard TD pass from Sanchez to Cumberland was overturned because the ball hit the ground. But on second-and-9 from the Titans' 6, Chris Johnson (122 yards, 21 carries) exposed the Jets' weakness with a quick first step, scampering 94 yards up the middle to make it 7-3 with 8:53 left in the first half.
Cumberland's 17-yard touchdown reception with 3:19 to go in the third quarter put the Jets up 10-7. But the Titans' Darius Reynaud returned the kickoff 35 yards and Locker did the rest, accounting for 59 of the Titans' 64 yards on the drive.