The Jets’ offense was a historically awful mess on Sunday. There is no denying that or sugarcoating it or excusing it, even if there were reasons for it.
Worst of all, quarterback Zach Wilson took a step back at the worst time in a 27-10 loss to the Bills at Highmark Stadium that tarnished some of the goodwill he had built up in recent weeks.
But because this is the last time we will see these guys in a game that counts until September, it also was OK for Jets fans covering their eyes to peek between their fingers and see a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Really, it was. Don’t be afraid, no matter how much you have been through in the past half-century, scars that understandably make it difficult to believe in good things.
The NFL and CBS gave the Jets a sweet late afternoon kickoff time for Week 18, which naturally had nothing to do with them. They were visiting the Bills, who were seeking to win the AFC East title before their frenzied, frigid fans.
That’s good television, which the Jets traditionally are not. But as they have on other occasions down the stretch, they made a game of it.
The subplot here is that rookie head coach Robert Saleh and his team — including rookies who led the Jets in passing, rushing and receiving this season — are watching and learning, with an eye on advancing to relevance next season.
In Week 17, it was Tom Brady, the Spirit of AFC East Quarterbacks Past, who led the Buccaneers on a dramatic 93-yard touchdown drive at MetLife Stadium. The Jets played well but allowed the winning TD pass with 15 seconds left in a 28-24 loss.
On Sunday, it was the Spirit of AFC East Quarterbacks Present, Josh Allen, who made big plays when it mattered most but for much of the day struggled to solve the Jets’ spirited defense.
The big question for the Jets: How would the Spirit of AFC East Quarterbacks Future do in their presence?
Wilson was good against Brady but had a long, long day against Allen, other than a 40-yard touchdown pass to Keelan Cole that made the score 10-7 in the second quarter.
He was 7-for-20 for 87 yards and was sacked eight times as the Jets netted 53 yards, the lowest total in franchise history. At times, his linemen were at fault; at other times, he was guilty of holding on to the ball too long.
Wilson lamented some "boneheaded" plays he made, notably when he took a sack that turned a 39-yard field-goal try into a 49-yarder.
"I was just trying to do too much," he said. "In my head, I’m like, ‘Make a play!’ But I have to just do my job, I have to throw the ball away."
It was a dispiriting setback after Wilson’s performance arrow had been pointing up in recent weeks. But at least he made it through another game without turning over the ball.
Wilson was bad, but he worked with no running game to speak of and had little pass protection, and when Jamison Crowder left in the second quarter with a calf injury, he was without his top four wide receivers.
He also was facing the league’s top-ranked defense on a windy, wet day in a hostile atmosphere.
Saleh said he would not let Sunday’s flop affect his overview of Wilson’s season. "I think his development over the course of the year has been spot on," Saleh said.
The Bills put it away in the fourth quarter. Leading 13-10, they took possession at their own 49-yard line and Allen ran 32 yards to spark a touchdown drive that made it 20-10 with 8:21 left.
The Jets’ offense was powerless to respond.
"At the end of the day, it’s about winning, period, and winning four games in this league is not good enough," Saleh said, "But at the same time, we all knew this was going to be a roller coaster of a season with the youth movement that we’ve had."
Losing to the Bills was the final exam for 2022.
"Clearly, we’ve got a long way to go if we want to close the gap with Buffalo. And New England and Miami, for that matter," Saleh said. "The gap is going to close, and it’s going to close with time and development."
Time’s up for this season. See you in September.