When the NFL released its schedule in April, it is fair to assume that NFL Network executives were pleased to see a Christmas present under their December TV tree:
America’s Team, a sure ratings bet and expected contender for the NFC East championship. The Jets? They appeared to be cast in the role of the Washington Generals, present at AT&T Stadium merely because the Cowboys needed an opponent.
Not so fast!
As the teams met Saturday night at Jerry Jones World, the universe’s most in-your-face video board found itself only with a visiting team worthy of sharing the big screen with the customary close-ups of Cowboys cheerleaders.
And the many Jets fans who booked the trip long ago found themselves scattered about the parking lots and inside the massive stadium not just for a late-season lark of a road trip but for a game with profound implications.
The best part was this: No matter what happened against the Cowboys, the Jets were set up for more dramatics over the final two Sundays of the regular season.
When coach Todd Bowles said during the week that the Jets “definitely have to win out” to qualify for the postseason, he was being more motivational than accurate. There are all sorts of things that can happen — and probably will.
What could be better than the Patriots coming to town in Week 16, followed by a visit to Rex Ryan’s Bills on Jan. 3? If the Jets reach the postseason, it will feel even better than against less juicy opponents.
At the risk of offending the New York football gods by referencing Wellington Mara in a column about the Jets, this is a convenient point at which to recall the late Giants co-owner’s minimum standard for every season: meaningful games in December.
The Jets have achieved that more emphatically than anyone could have hoped before the first season under the new Mike Maccagnan/Bowles regime.
These Jets might not end up in the playoffs, but they already have had a successful season based on where it all began.
The fact that they brought their increasingly popular road show to north Texas in itself represented a unique moment in their history. This was only the fourth time the Cowboys have hosted the Jets, and it marked a tables-turned moment.
Take a look at the visitors’ circumstances the first three times, all largely inconsequential late-season games — at least for the Jets:
Dec. 4, 1971: The Jets were 4-7 when they arrived late in the Cowboys’ first season at Texas Stadium. Dallas won, 52-10, and went on to win Super Bowl VI.
Dec. 19, 1999: The Jets were 5-8 after starting 1-6 following the loss of quarterback Vinny Testaverde to a torn Achilles tendon in the opener. They won, 22-21. Both teams finished 8-8, but the Cowboys — coached by current Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey — made the playoffs and Bill Parcells’ Jets did not.
Nov. 22, 2007: The Jets were 2-8 when they visited Texas Stadium for the last time and lost, 34-3, on Thanksgiving Day. They would finish 4-12.
Those 2007 Cowboys went 13-3, then lost a divisional-round playoff game at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.
This time around, the Jets were 8-5 entering the game, the Cowboys were 4-9 and America had a reason other than America’s Team to tune in.
Both teams started quarterbacks originally slated as backups. Only one started a quarterback who had thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in his previous three games, and whose beard-trimming strategy has become a subject of public interest.
“I felt like there was an opportunity for me to play,” Ryan Fitzpatrick said during the week, “and having been cut and having been released and traded and all the different things I’ve been through in my career, you never know when those opportunities are going to come.
“So just try to take advantage of it the best that I can.”
The Jets have two more weeks to make it happen. America will be watching.