Morris Claiborne spoke for every Jets player — and perhaps every Jets fan who has watched so many of these opportunities slip through the team’s hands during the fourth quarter — when he searched for the right words to describe this maddeningly frustrating season.
Actually, there is really no way to properly describe these games in which they come so close to beating so many quality opponents, only to succumb through a series of misfortunes that almost defy logic.
Claiborne’s search for an explanation only leads to more questions.
“I’m just at a loss for words,” the Jets cornerback said a few minutes after a 35-27 loss to the Panthers. “I can’t put my finger on it for what it is. What are we not doing enough of to close out games? Why are we so dominant early on in the game and then in the fourth quarter, with a couple minutes left on the clock . . . ”
His voice trailed off as he shook his head.
“I don’t know what it is, the reason why we’re not closing out the games,” he said. “I think we have a good mentality for the way we want to play, who we want to be. We work [on] situations to finish, but when we get here in the game . . . I don’t know.”
It is a painfully familiar refrain for a team that has come so tantalizingly close to beating good teams, only to lose in mind-numbing fashion. It happened against the Patriots, when Austin Seferian-Jenkins had what appeared to be a touchdown overturned on replay. It happened the following week against the Dolphins, when the Jets blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead and lost after a Josh McCown interception. And then the week after that in a 25-20 loss to the Falcons in another blown fourth-quarter opportunity.
And now the Panthers.
In the fourth quarter.
Another Seferian-Jenkins touchdown overturned.
Another McCown turnover, this time a fumble return for a touchdown.
These are brutal losses for a team that has come oh-so-close to pulling off the kind of season no one in their wildest dreams could have anticipated (at least no one outside the Jets’ locker room). Even at 4-7, they have overachieved in many ways, winning more often and playing better than expected.
But in every one of these losses to quality teams, they have played well enough to win, only to stumble in the fourth quarter and lose in such demoralizing fashion— one more exasperating than the last.
“We gotta have grit,” said receiver Jermaine Kearse, who had a 3-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to make it 32-27. “That’s being able to persevere through anything, whether it’s bad calls, bad plays. It’s frustrating to know you’ve been in certain games and you have the opportunity to win and you don’t. If you can’t find a way, you’ve got to find a way to find a way.”
The Jets very easily could be 7-4 and very much alive for a playoff berth instead of 4-7 and realistically out of it.
If only . . .
“It’s very frustrating when you have opportunities you don’t cash in on,” said Seferian-Jenkins, who scored what appeared to be a fourth-quarter touchdown, only to have the call overturned because replay showed he didn’t have possession before going out of bounds. He also dropped an easy touchdown pass in the first half, with the Jets having to settle for a field goal.
“This is what happens,’’ he said. “You lose games. This is the NFL. Professionals are supposed to make plays, and I didn’t. I need to do better.”
The game then spun out of control when McCown made an ill-fated decision to force a pass as he was getting sacked. He fumbled instead, and Luke Kuechly returned it for a 34-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 26-20 lead after a two-point conversion.
The play brought back haunting memories of Bubby Brister’s shovel pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Sam Mills to give Carolina its first win as an expansion franchise in 1995.
After another three-and-out, the Jets surrendered a 60-yard touchdown on a punt return to make it 32-20 with less than 10 minutes to go.
“I felt like we gave the game away,” linebacker Darron Lee said.