It is anathema for a football coach or player to think about anything other than beating the next opponent, a mentality that courses through every NFL locker room no matter the record or the next foe. To think otherwise is unacceptable, even if you're 2-11 and going nowhere.
"We've got three games left and every game's precious," Jets coach Rex Ryan said after Sunday's overtime loss to the Vikings. "But our guys are competitive and we want to win and our guys will do whatever it takes to do that."
But in a very tangible way, it actually is in the Jets' long-term interest to lose their final three games and hope to finish with the NFL's worst record.
With no hope of finishing any better than 5-11, the more palatable alternative is to lose out and assure themselves of the first overall draft pick in 2015. With Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, the presumptive Heisman Trophy winner, considered a lock to be the top quarterback taken in the draft, the Jets finally could land a franchise quarterback to lead them out of their current mess, which Geno Smith doesn't seem capable of doing.
Just as the 2011 Colts collapsed without injured quarterback Peyton Manning and wound up with Andrew Luck to lead them into another generation of potential Super Bowl greatness, the Jets are in the race for that coveted No. 1 slot. But the only way to guarantee getting it is if they finish with fewer wins than everyone else. If there's a tie for the worst record, the first pick goes to the team with the weakest strength of schedule.
Four other teams -- the Bucs, Titans, Jaguars and Raiders -- also are 2-11, and if the draft were held today, the Jets would have the fourth pick. In order, it would be the Bucs, Titans, Jaguars, Jets and Raiders.
Of course, this could change after the final three games. And in a sort of twisted way, the Jets hold some of their fate in their own hands with Sunday's game at Tennessee. The winner might be the loser, at least when it comes to the draft order. A win by the Jets would get them that much further away from the first pick and keep the Titans in prime position.
Of the five 2-11 teams, three are in the market for a franchise quarterback: Tampa Bay, Tennessee and the Jets. The Jaguars spent the third overall pick on Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles last year and appear committed to him for the long haul. The Raiders used a second-round pick on Derek Carr, and his improvement throughout the season likely means they are committed to him. The one asterisk is that there will be a new head coach in Oakland, and that could lead to a change in thinking if they're in position to draft Mariota or Florida State's Jameis Winston, the other blue-chip quarterback expected to be available in April.
The Bucs, Titans and Jets are in the market for a player of Mariota's caliber. And although Winston's off-field issues make him more of a risk, there's no denying the 2013 Heisman winner's talent, or that he has never lost a college football game. Considering the desperation NFL teams have shown in securing a franchise quarterback in recent years, there's a good chance he will be a top five pick.
The remaining schedules of the teams in line for the No. 1 pick vary in degree of difficulty. After the Titans, the Jets are home against the Patriots and finish the season at Miami. The Bucs are at Carolina and home against the Packers and Saints. After the Jets, the Titans are at Jacksonville and home against the Colts. The Jaguars are at Baltimore, home against the Titans, and at Houston. The Raiders are at Kansas City, home against the Bills, and at Denver.
The Redskins are 3-10 going into Sunday against the Giants, but in all likelihood, it will be one of the 2-11 teams that winds up with the top pick.
So Jets fans will be understandably torn about their allegiances down the stretch. Do you root for your team to win and salvage some measure of pride from a lost season? Or do you want the Jets to lose out and have a shot at a potential savior on draft day?
"I know where our fans are coming from. If there was a Peyton Manning out there, a Walter Payton, I'm not saying you'd throw it,'' Ryan said with a smattering of sarcasm. "No, I'm just kidding. We're trying to win the game.''
Ryan is all in for the next three weeks, but many fans are sure to have mixed feelings, considering the potential benefits of three straight losses and a shot at Mariota.
Tough choices for an even tougher season.