This one will stick with the Jets for a while.
As it should. The details of their demise in Sunday’s 27-22 loss to the Vikings were so small, they ought to irritate everyone on the team like tiny pebbles in their shoes.
Two fourth-down shots at the end zone in the final two minutes, a toe that grazed the sideline, a deep pass just off the fingertips and one coverage slip-up while otherwise clamping down on the league’s top receiving threat.
When the Jets go over the video Monday, it will be agonizing to realize just how close they were to what would have been a season-defining victory.
But as he walked out of the locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium, rookie cornerback Sauce Gardner offered another opinion on why this day will be one the Jets look back on as they progress through the final five games of their schedule with a postseason possibility in front of them.
“We learned that we can go up against anybody, go up against the best, and we can handle adversity well,” he said.
If that’s the part that sticks with them from Sunday’s game, not the disgust and frustration, they’ll be just fine.
There is no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL, as at least a half-dozen Jets players and coaches reminded us. That certainly is true, especially during the stretch drive, when every actual win counts in the standings.
Yet there can be losses that somehow manage to bring out the best qualities — if not always the best football — from a team. There can be games when the scoreboard tilts in favor of the other guys but the more important questions about the personality of a squad and its potential are answered in defeat.
This felt like one of those.
The Vikings earned their 10th win of the season and looked like the kind of team that might make a push for a title.
The Jets took their fifth loss but looked
like the kind of team those Lombardi Trophy-hunters hope they don’t encounter on their path.
“It’s a game of inches,” wide receiver Garrett Wilson said. “That’s what we were saying to each other. We have to figure out how we can make up for that inch.”
Does that make this result more difficult to stomach? Or more comforting?
“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a good question. Both.”
It will take time to decide that. About five weeks, in fact.
If the Jets come up one win short of a playoff berth a month from now and end up sitting out the postseason, this certainly will be looked back on as one that got away.
If they manage to get in the tournament despite Sunday’s result, this likely will be looked back on as the game that steeled them for their push, that showed not how far away they were from besting one of the league’s aristocracy but how close they were to doing it.
The takeaway needs to be that the Jets never thought of themselves as out of this game even when they trailed 20-3 late in the second quarter, even as their chances to reach the end zone failed one after another and they had to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns.
Even after a soul-crippling drop in the end zone on a potential go-ahead touchdown pass from Mike White to Braxton Berrios, the Jets still had another 1:43 of grit and determination in them, enough to force a three-and-out and to push themselves back in position to win the game again.
“There was no moaning and complaining on the sideline,” White said. “We stared adversity in the face and responded. We just have to respond better.”
They have a defense and a quarterback who are not perfect but certainly are good enough to give them a chance every time they take the field. Good enough to do that on Sunday.
“I’m proud to be this team’s coach,” Robert Saleh said. “I’m proud of every single person in that locker room. They absolutely fought their tails off. This team doesn’t quit . . . If we play like that, I know we’re going to win more often than not.”
If the rest of the team knows that too, truly deeply knows and believes it, then Sunday will be remembered not as a day of victory (because it was not) but as the day the Jets learned who they are and what they can be.