The mounting injuries weren't even the worst part.

Those setbacks are expected and often are unavoidable in football. But it's the mental mistakes that can derail the most promising of drives.

For an offense that's starving for production, the Jets continually found a way to disrupt their own rhythm in their 17-12 loss to the Carolina Panthers at MetLife Stadium last night.

The Jets became the first team since the 1977 Atlanta Falcons to fail to score a touchdown in the first three preseason games, according to NBC. They have gone 12 quarters, 35 drives and exactly 174 plays without getting the ball in the end zone. But neither Rex Ryan nor his players were interested in dwelling on stats that, they believe, don't matter.

"There's work to be done, clearly," Ryan said when asked about the Week 1 matchup with Buffalo. " . . . But I think we'll get this thing turned by then."

Mark Sanchez was a bright spot, going 11-for-18 for 123 yards and one interception, a pass that bounced off the hands of rookie wideout Stephen Hill.

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The Jets seemed as if they might change their scoring luck when Tim Tebow (4-for-14, 55 yards) led them down the field in the final minute. But his fourth-down throw into the end zone was too high.

The Jets will face the Eagles Thursday before hosting Buffalo in the regular-season opener Sept. 9. They hope the offense has come around by then. "Listen, there's been games last season where they saved us, there have been games where we saved them. That's what a whole team is all about . . . And that's what you do: You pick each other up," linebacker Bart Scott said.

The Jets settled for four field goals; Josh Brown also missed a 45-yarder. "The field-goal team looked pretty good out there," Santonio Holmes said.

The return of Holmes and Jeremy Kerley was supposed to provide a spark. Instead, Holmes (who hadn't played since the Aug. 4 intrasquad scrimmage) caught only one of three passes thrown his way. Though he converted a first down on that catch, he admitted that the coaching staff might get on him for running the wrong route on the play. Kerley didn't have a catch.

Tebow -- who gained 45 yards on five carries -- entered to cheers in the third quarter, but within minutes, he was booed after throwing a near pick-six and a pass that sailed over a wide-open Kerley in the end zone. He also followed up a 20-yard scramble with an interception.

Hill finished with five catches for 68 yards, the longest of which was a 32-yarder from Sanchez. But with the second quarter winding down, he let a pass slip through his fingers in the back of the end zone. "You'd like to see Mark deliver it on his body,'' Ryan said. "But you've still got to catch that ball.''

Hill's most egregious error came in the final minute of the first half when a pass from Sanchez ricocheted off his hands and into the arms of Captain Munnerlyn. "He has to understand that when the game starts, everything has to count in game mode," Holmes said of Hill, who left the game after injuring his hip or lower back after catching an 8-yard pass from Tebow. "And this is not practice mode."

Tight end Dustin Keller limped off the field with a hamstring injury after a 24-yard catch on the Jets' first play of the game. Later, linebacker David Harris suffered an ankle injury. But the most crushing blow came when second-year tight end Josh Baker injured a leg.

After Sanchez's 32-yard pass to Hill put the Jets in the red zone, Sanchez tried to hit Baker in the end zone. With his eyes on the flight of the ball, Baker never saw a Carolina helmet coming straight for his right knee, bending his leg in the most awkward and unwatchable way.

Ryan said he hopes the injuries suffered by Keller and Harris aren't serious. As for Baker's apparent knee injury, he said, "Shoot, that never looked good."