Geno Smith warms up before a game against the Carolina...

Geno Smith warms up before a game against the Carolina Panthers. (Dec. 15, 2013) Credit: Getty

Three plays was all it took.

Despite being 11-point underdogs, the Jets believed they could beat Carolina and keep their playoff hopes alive. And sparked by a touchdown from the unlikeliest of players, they mounted a comeback in hostile territory to move within three points late in the third quarter.

But three plays wound up costing them.

Inexplicably, one fundamental breakdown from each unit -- offense, defense and special teams -- allowed the Panthers to cruise to a 30-20 win Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

DeAngelo Williams' 72-yard touchdown on a second-quarter screen pass from Cam Newton was "a back-breaker,'' Rex Ryan said. Geno Smith said his fifth pick-6 of the season was a "bad throw'' he "forced'' to Santonio Holmes. And in between those two plays, Jason Williams' block of Ryan Quigley's fourth-quarter punt was the game-changer.

The Panthers (10-4) scored 14 points in the final quarter to stave off the Jets and tie the Saints for first in the NFC South.

It would take a miracle for the Jets (6-8) to make the playoffs. And Ryan knows it.

"This would be Ripley's if we pull this one off,'' said Ryan, whose team hasn't reached the postseason or had a winning record since 2010.

If the Ravens beat the Lions Monday night, the Jets' playoff hopes will be gone. For now, all they can do is hope for the best and try to win out.

"You have to fight for it,'' cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "You finish out the season strong. That's the only way you can go about it.''

Said guard Willie Colon: "I'm all about pride and heart. Whatever our chances are, our chances are. The fans deserve a good product on the field, for us to go out and play hard and represent New York. This team needs to stick together and be a family and finish the year strong.''

After Miami's win over New England earlier in the day, the Jets hoped to pull off an upset of their own. Despite trailing 16-6 at halftime, they found a way to make it a game, thanks to Sheldon Richardson. The rookie defensive tackle recorded his first career rushes on back-to-back attempts and scored on a 1-yard run to pull the Jets within 16-13 with 3:04 left in the third quarter.

But the comeback was short-lived. In the early stages of the fourth quarter, Williams barreled past long snapper Tanner Purdum to knock down Quigley's kick. Carolina took over at the Jets' 14-yard line and scored four plays later.

Mike Tolbert's apparent 3-yard TD run was overturned after a review. But the fullback left no doubt on his second attempt, easily running it in from the 1.

The Panthers' defensive backs -- sparked by Santonio Holmes' statement that they're the "weakest link'' in the defense -- were determined to get the better of Smith, and they did. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn sacked the rookie twice and returned an interception 41 yards for a touchdown with 8:17 remaining.

"It seems like every time I catch a pick, I take it to the house,'' Munnerlyn said.

Receiver David Nelson said the Panthers' secondary "made it a point to let us know'' on the first series that they didn't appreciate Holmes' comment and that they were determined to "make us pay.''

Nelson added that one of the defensive backs told him: "[No.] 10 messed up.''

But Holmes, who didn't catch a pass until the fourth quarter, stood by his words. Ryan agreed, saying: "I think the weakness is the secondary. I'll say that.''

But self-inflicted wounds have been a chronic weakness of Ryan's teams. Smith's pick-6 (his 21st interception), coupled with the blocked punt, obliterated any chance of a Jets victory.

"Same old stuff here and there,'' said linebacker Calvin Pace, who recorded his career-high ninth sack. "I always say it's tough to play against an opponent and yourself.''

Jeff Cumberland's 8-yard TD catch pulled the Jets to within 30-20 with 3:50 to go, but it was too little too late.

At halftime, Smith said Ryan told the Jets they were "one or two plays from being back in the game.'' But in the end, it was three plays that cost them.

And there's no such thing as moral victories for hard-fought games.

"Absolutely not,'' Ryan said. "Because we came here to win.''

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