Jets fans knew a postseason berth was unrealistic, but this much was very real: a December of games to get excited about, especially a prime-time Dec. 12 visit to Baltimore and a chance to shock the football world.
On Sunday, they erased much of the optimism and buzz generated by their three-game winning streak, losing a can’t-lose game to the previously winless Bengals, 22-6.
There was nothing fluky about it. Cincinnati was the better team on a windy, gray day in a largely empty stadium.
“We lost to Miami earlier in the year when they were winless as well,” defensive lineman Henry Anderson said. “You don’t like to be that team that gives a team their first win of the season. It sucks.”
When informed that by losing to the then-0-7 Dolphins and 0-11 Bengals, the Jets became the first team in NFL history to lose to two winless teams that were 0-7 or worse, Anderson said, “Yeah, that’s not good.”
It is not. So much for next weekend’s rematch with the Dolphins, which was supposed to give the Jets a shot at the .500 mark against the Ravens. Win there, and the Steelers and Bills games could have been big fun.
Even a loss to the powerful Ravens would have left the Jets with a shot at .500 for the season, making it less awkward to bring back Adam Gase as coach.
That’s all over now. Gase, quarterback Sam Darnold and their friends still could make something of this era come 2020 and beyond, but 2019 officially is kaput at 4-8.
The last time the Jets fell to a team that was 0-10 or worse, according to ESPN, was a 21-20 loss to the 0-14 Saints in 1980. The Saints’ quarterback was Archie Manning.
“It sucks to lose this game,” Darnold said before insisting the loss did not hurt more because of the opponent.
But of course it did, and not only because of the opponent but because of the timing. When the Jets lost to the Dolphins on Nov. 3, they were 1-7 basket cases, and Jets fans were calling for Gase’s head.
That week, CEO Christopher Johnson told the team that Gase would be back in 2020, and the Jets won three in a row, making it seem like a smart move. Then came Sunday, when everything went awry.
There were 10 penalties for 106 yards, several of them killers by the offensive line. There was a curious lack of commitment to the running game against the worst rush defense in the NFL. There was an anemic pass rush.
Finally, there was safety Jamal Adams, their best player during the winning streak, with his eyes welling up as he spoke to reporters, then walking out of the locker room with a protective boot on his left foot.
Gase blamed the debacle on lousy field position, damaging penalties and dropped passes, but certainly not on taking the Bengals lightly. “No, no,” he said.
But might there have been a lack of energy given the uninspiring atmosphere and uninspiring opponent?
“I don’t know; I didn’t feel that,” Le’Veon Bell said after another lackluster outing in which he rushed 10 times for 32 yards. “If that’s what you sensed, that’s what you sensed. But I didn’t feel it.”
The entire mess was a shocking reality check for a team that, unlike the Giants, had provided a glimmer of hope in a hopeless New York football season.
Turns out the Jets still are firmly in the NFL’s lower tier after all. They had a chance this month to change that narrative, and they blew it.
Asked about the mood in the locker room, Gase said, “Quiet . . . We didn’t come here to lose.”
Somehow they did.