Compared to nearly a year earlier, when they faced the Patriots in another Week 16 matchup, it is difficult to imagine a more diametrically opposed set of circumstances for the Jets.
Remember Dec. 27, 2015, when the Patriots and Jets played at MetLife Stadium, with New England headed to yet another playoff season and the Jets closing in on a postseason berth of their own? Ryan Fitzpatrick took the Patriots to overtime with yet another outstanding game in what turned out to be a career year, and the Jets won it in spectacular fashion on a touchdown drive to start the extra session.
A 26-20 win against the Jets’ longtime nemesis put them in position for a win-and-you’re-in scenario the following week against the Bills, giving Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall a chance to reach the playoffs for the first time. It also gave Todd Bowles a chance to put the finishing touches on one of the best rookie seasons by any Jets coach.
As fate would have it, though, that Week 16 win over the Patriots would represent a high-water mark for the franchise, because it has been a long and painful downward spiral ever since. Fitzpatrick blew up in the fourth quarter the following week against the Bills, the Jets failed to get to the playoffs, and they have been a mess ever since.
Just days short of a year since that dramatic win over the Patriots, the Jets were humiliated by the team that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady built, losing on Saturday at Gillette Stadium, 41-3, in yet another brutal reminder of the chasm that exists between the Jets and the perennial Super Bowl-contending Patriots.
The Jets have dropped three of their last four games and have been outscored by a combined 116-26 in those losses to the Colts, Dolphins and Patriots. Saturday’s loss was reminiscent of the 45-3 shellacking by New England they suffered near the end of the 2010 season, but at least they were a playoff-worthy team that year. They came back to beat the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs in one of the biggest wins in franchise history.
This time they are limping to the finish line in epically embarrassing fashion at 4-11 heading into next Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Bills. And if the contrast with their next-to-last game in 2015 was striking, it will be a similar scenario at MetLife Stadium a year after Jets-Bills went so wrong and started the stunning descent.
Rex Ryan could be coaching his final game for the Bills, and while Jets owner Woody Johnson hasn’t given an indication of what he might do with Bowles after the season, he surely will be wondering what his next move will be as his team finishes a demoralizing season before what could be a half-empty stadium for the New Year’s Day finale.
Bowles’ appearance on the sideline was the only positive moment on what turned out to be an otherwise brutal afternoon. The coach was stricken on Friday after suffering complications from gallstones and kidney stones, and he didn’t make the trip with the team later that day. After a brief hospitalization, Bowles was cleared to rejoin the team, and he opted to remain on the sideline for the game.
“Gallstones got stuck in the pipe,” Bowles said afterward. “A lot of pain, and [it] went from there. I had to pass some tests and be feeling somewhat normal to get out there.”
His players were both heartened and impressed to see the coach back on the job.
“There was a sense of relief seeing him in the locker room before the game, just making sure he was OK,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a scary thing. I think it was just the action of him showing up. I think that’s what was so impressive. For him to be battling through whatever he’s battling . . . That action speaks volumes as to the man and the coach he is.”
Unfortunately for Bowles, there was no concurrent emotional lift that made a difference in the game. The Jets were awful from the start, with Bryce Petty throwing an interception and getting sacked twice before suffering a dislocated shoulder while making a tackle after running back Khiry Robinson’s fumble.
Fitzpatrick wasn’t much better in relief, going 8-for-21 for 136 yards and two interceptions.
“All losses are tough, but if you make mistakes [against the Patriots], they’re going to embarrass you,” he said. “To get embarrassed the way we did is never fun, not just as a football player, but as a man.”
Fitzpatrick took umbrage at the suggestion the Jets have quit on the season or on their coach. His opinion was heard often in the losing locker room.
“We got beat today. We got embarrassed,” he said. “We got embarrassed, but there aren’t quitters in this locker room.”
The Jets are just a shell of what they were a year ago, an aging roster that has been gutted by injuries along the offensive line, at running back and in the secondary. And the tensions you might expect from a season run aground are in evidence, with the latest example the back-and-forth sniping between underachieving defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and Marshall.
If there is to be a turnaround, general manager Mike Maccagnan will have to infuse this team with a jolt of young talent and figure out a quarterback situation that right now looks intractable. Fitzpatrick won’t be back, Petty isn’t the answer, Christian Hackenberg hasn’t even seen the light of day in a game, and there’s no telling whether the Jets will draft another quarterback or try to sign or trade for one of the handful of veterans who will be available in the offseason.
It’s a dismal time for a franchise that has become all too familiar with that word over the decades since Joe Namath won the only Super Bowl for the Jets after the 1968 season.
One more week to go, and it’s on to 2017.
Will it get any better? Too soon to know. About the best you can say is it can’t get much worse.