If you never saw another Jets game at MetLife Stadium, Sunday’s 28-24 Bucs win would have been about as eventful an afternoon as you could imagine.
Just think about all that happened:
* The Jets (now 4-12) came within seconds of upsetting the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs (now 12-4).
* Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson (born on Aug. 3, 1999) outplayed the greatest player in the history of pro football (born on Aug. 3, 1977) for nearly the entire game. Yes, Wilson was better than Tom Brady most of the way.
* Antonio Brown, reinstated last week after being suspended three games for submitting a falsified vaccination card, stripped off his jersey and shoulder pads on the sideline in the third quarter, threw his T-shirt into the stands and then ran through the end zone and into the locker room. Yes, a man quit on his team in full view of more than 72,000 fans in what almost certainly will be the final game of a checkered career. In fact, by the end of the game, Brown already had been released from the team and had to find his own way back to Florida.
* The Jets built a 24-10 third-quarter lead against a team that can become the first since Brady’s 2003-04 Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
* Although Tampa Bay came back to make it 24-20 midway through the fourth quarter, the Jets nearly put the game away after the Bucs exhausted their full complement of timeouts.
* And then, on a play that must be added to the decades-long list of Jets misfortunes, a colossal miscommunication between the coaching staff and Wilson resulted in a botched quarterback sneak on fourth-and-2 at the Bucs’ 7. A first down would have ended the game; instead, Wilson made the ill-fated choice to try the sneak instead of handing off to Braxton Berrios on an end-around that almost surely would have gotten the first down and maybe a touchdown.
* And of course, yet another magical drive for the 44-year-old Brady, who drove the Bucs 93 yards for the winning score with 15 seconds left in regulation. He threw a 33-yard pass to Cyril Grayson, who had never played college football but on this afternoon became the newest cast member of Brady’s traveling show in a dramatic win.
It was as eventful a regular-season football game as you will ever see. And if this was Brady’s final time playing the Jets, it was one last reminder of all the punishing losses he has delivered against them.
After it was over, the Jets moved about in mostly stunned silence, with coach Robert Saleh lamenting the result and falling on his sword about the failed fourth-down attempt.
"It’s unfortunate we’re going to be talking about the last sequence of events, but I thought our guys were outstanding," Saleh said. "They deserve better. They won that game. We’ve got to be better for our players."
No argument there. Not only did Wilson fail to deliver on the sneak, but it came after a timeout, meaning there was absolutely no excuse for the failure of Saleh (or, more likely, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur) to explicitly tell Wilson to hand the ball to Berrios on the end around. It’s a play the Bucs had consistently failed to properly defend, and chances are it would have worked. And if it had, the game would have been over.
Instead, the Jets gave Brady one more chance, and he drove the Bucs nearly the entire field, capping it with a perfect pass to a receiver so seldom used that he wasn’t even listed on the team’s depth chart.
But with Brown having left the field in a huff, Brady simply found another man to be on the receiving end of the winning pass.
The Jets can at least take comfort in the way they played, even though they lost. They went toe-to-toe with the champs, they played through a ton of injuries at receiver and on the offensive and defensive lines, and they nearly pulled off a stunning upset.
"It was unfortunate, but I thought [there were] so many great learning experiences," said Wilson, who was 19-for-33 for 234 yards and a touchdown pass to Berrios. "Right now as a team, all we have to understand was what we’re working for in the future."
Wilson is at the center of that future, and he has shown verifiable improvement since returning from a knee injury. He has gone four straight games without throwing an interception, and his command of the offense was mostly superb on Sunday. That it came against Brady and the Bucs was most impressive.
Wilson was at least partially undone by his coaches, although he took the blame for not getting enough yardage on the failed quarterback sneak.
"One yard . . . that goes in our favor [on the sneak], and the game is over," he said. "Can’t get too down on yourself. It’s exactly what we needed. We needed to give those guys a game."
What they need now is to take those game-deciding moments and turn them in their favor. The margin for error in this league is razor-thin, and only the good teams find a way to win with the game on the line. There is no telling whether the Jets will master those situations in the years ahead, but having this game in their memory can only help.
Even if Saleh wasn’t thinking that way afterward. "I don’t believe in moral victories," he said. "You win and you lose."
True enough. But you’re still allowed to be encouraged by what happened on Sunday in one of the most eventful, drama-filled games you will ever see.
Maybe one day the Jets will be able to look back and heed the lessons they need to learn after failing to put the dagger in against the greatest football player to walk the planet.