Steve McLendon of the New York Jets reacts after a...

Steve McLendon  of the New York Jets reacts after a defensive play in the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016. Credit: Jim McIsaac

FOXBOROUGH, MASS. — In the end, Steve McLendon’s smile said it all.

For weeks, the Jets defensive tackle has tried to get back on the field, but a lingering hamstring injury has forced him to sit out the past three games. And as much as he tried to sound optimistic about playing, McLendon’s hesitation gave it away.

“This Saturday?” he asked during an interview with Newsday after sitting out Thursday’s practice.

After a brief pause, he continued.

“Uh, it depends on what they say. I’ve got one more day. We’ll see how it goes. There’s a good chance that I could play — and could not,” the veteran said with a grin. “If I can pass every test, I’ll probably be able to travel with the team. Everything’s based off of the morning.”

On Friday, the team ruled him out for the fourth straight week. Lorenzo Mauldin (ankle) also was ruled out again and veteran running back Matt Forte (shoulder/knee) is doubtful.

McLendon said he first strained the muscle against the Rams on Nov. 13. “It wasn’t like no big tear,” said the seven-year vet who has 3.5 sacks.

With a bye week immediately after, he returned to action against the Patriots on Nov. 27 but aggravated the injury in a 22-17 loss. “That’s when it grabbed on me a little bit,” McLendon said, adding that it was “a hamstring sprain” the second time.

Since then, he’s been sidelined. In the past three games he’s missed, the Jets defense has allowed an average of 151.3 rushing yards per game. Even more glaring: The unit surrendered 248 rushing yards in their comeback win over the 49ers on Dec. 11.

Given the nature of his position and the movements he has to make on the field, McLendon was told his injury was going to take “a little time to heal . . . nd it has taken some time,” he said, sounding dejected.

Despite the Jets’ 4-10 record, he said he wouldn’t want to sit the final two games — even if it would benefit his body.

“Shut it down? No,” said McLendon, who’ll turn 31 on Jan. 3. “Because you want to show these younger guys — and not just them, but the other older guys, too — if you’ve got a chance to help your team to play, I don’t care if you’re winning or losing, if you’ve got an opportunity to come back and help the team, come back. Do it.

“Me, personally, I feel like it’ll put a fire up under a lot of guys. I could’ve shut it down and said, ‘Man, I’m done. But nah, I believe every single week, all the way up until that last week, that I always have a fighting chance,” added the former Pittsburgh Steeler, who signed a three-year deal with the Jets in March 2016. “That’s always been my motto playing football. I know the day I get to wake up, I know have a fighting chance. That’s all I wanna do. Fight, fight, fight, finish.”

He didn’t have much of a fighting chance to play Saturday in New England. But if he’s able to in the season finale against Buffalo, he will. In his eyes, that’s what leaders do. And with one year with the Jets, McLendon is determined to become more of one going forward.

“I can take ownership right now for myself — I might need to say more, I might need to do more,” he said. “That’s another reason why I’m trying to come back and play. Just to show them, like, ‘Damn, if he’s an old guy and he’s trying to come back and play?’

“Leadership is sometimes about the stuff that you do. It’s not about the words you say. Lead by action. I know many guys that can lead by words.”

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