By Steve Lichtenstein
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Be honest, fellow Jets fans. After Sunday’s heartbreak, you didn’t think Thursday’s win in Buffalo was secure until the final gun sounded.
You certainly didn’t think the game was in the bag when the Jets pounded the Bills into near submission in the first half, scoring on their first four possessions to take a 20-7 lead.
You obviously knew better, even if the particular events that sparked the Bills’ third-quarter resurgence — a 71-yard bomb from quarterback Tyrod Taylor to uncovered journeyman wide receiver Greg Salas and a gift touchdown return off rookie receiver Jalin Marshall’s fumble by Buffalo defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman, all in just a 2:41 span — were beyond the realm of comprehension.
And even when the Jets righted the ship to go ahead, 37-24, on Matt Forte’s third rushing touchdown of the evening with a little over four minutes remaining, you can admit that you had a funny feeling that coach Todd Bowles’ decision to forgo a two-point conversion at that juncture would come back to bite them.
I guess there were no math majors on the Jets sideline, because the Bills marched down the field on their ensuing possession to make it a one-score game. Of course they did. Jets fans were then forced to agonize over the final minute of play before receiver Marquise Goodwin was tackled in bounds some 70 yards from paydirt on the Bills’ last snap.
Only then could we exhale.
However, I’m afraid that’s the way this Jets season is going to play out. You’ll have no idea what you’re going to get from this club drive-to-drive, let alone game-to-game.
Oh, there’s plenty of talent here on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has weapons galore. The Jets nearly had three different receivers (Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa) reach 100 yards Thursday night while Forte banged reached the century mark on the ground. The defense is stacked with high draft picks and high-priced free agents.
The bugaboo has been big-play capability — and prevention. The Jets seem to do as much to hurt themselves as they do to hurt opponents.
The red zone stumbles that hampered the Jets in their Week 1 loss to Cincinnati recurred in Thursday’s first half, when they settled for a pair of field goals.
Jalin Marshall’s fumble marked the second game in a row that a Jets receiver turned the ball over and Brandon Marshall again contributed an egregious drop that negated a potential big gain.
A gorgeous 58-yard strike from Fitzpatrick to Decker on the first play after the Bills took a 24-20 lead was called back on a holding penalty by tackle Ryan Clady. Had Clady’s block been clean, the Jets still would have lost 15 yards due to the team’s second taunting penalty of the game.
In the meantime, the back end of the Jets’ defense, which was torched three times by Bengals pass plays that netted over 40 yards, gave up another pair to the Bills. Beleaguered star cornerback Darrelle Revis wasn’t even assigned to hurting Bills leading receiver Sammy Watkins, yet he was the culprit on an 84-yard fly to Goodwin, a third-year pro who came into the game with all of 20 career receptions.
The Bills had the ball for 20:48 and scored 31 points. I didn’t think that was possible.
Luckily, the Jets were facing a sad-sack, Rex Ryan-coached squad that wasn’t at full strength. In the end, they were able to do enough to come out on top.
Fitzpatrick put forth a monster performance that hopefully exorcised all of those Ryan-fed demons. One of the least efficient long-distance passers in the league, Fitzpatrick completed 10 throws of at least 15 yards — the third-most by any quarterback in the last 10 years, according to ESPN. He was 48 for 137 (35 percent) on all such throws in 2015.
Despite the loss of guard James Carpenter to a calf injury, Fitzpatrick was sacked just once and barely touched on his 40 dropbacks. The Jets’ receivers had a field day against the Bills’ accommodating defense, with Enunwa’s rapid development being in my view the most encouraging sign of the season. His ability to catch contested passes anywhere on the field and also block on running plays somewhat makes up for the Jets’ glaring weakness at tight end.
Unlike against the Bengals, the Jets’ defense stepped up early in the fourth quarter with cornerback Marcus Williams’ interception and a fourth-down stuff of running back LeSean McCoy by defensive end Sheldon Richardson, who made his season debut after sitting out the opener due to suspension.
The Jets’ special teams also held up for a change — Nick Folk made all seven of his kicks on Thursday. The coverage units allowed only one return of significance, one that didn’t jump-start a subsequent point-scoring drive.
And Bowles, outside of his judgment error in ordering a PAT when up by 12 points late in the contest, deserves some credit for a game plan that opened up the offense and kept Taylor mostly in the pocket.
I’ll come clean and admit that I had a Jets obituary all queued up for this post had they lost to Buffalo. Their season would have essentially been over.
Though NFL actuaries would have given an 0-2 Jets club a 12 percent chance to still qualify for the playoffs, they haven’t seen New York’s schedule. Not only does Gang Green face a relative Murderer’s Row of opponents over their next four games, they also have to eventually play a certain team from New England twice.
Kansas City, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Arizona all have quarterbacks that can throw the ball accurately, unlike the power-armed but erratic Taylor. Those teams feast on opposition mistakes and limit their own.
The question is whether Bowles can get his team to clean up the multitude of glaring gaffes that will almost certainly cost his team wins when it faces stiffer competition.
The Jets can be thankful they are alive — for now. If they keep playing like this, they won’t be for very long.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1