By Steve Lichtenstein
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Over the course of my 40-plus years as a diehard Jets fan, I’ve subjected myself to various degrees of grief at different points each season.

The worst is the pain when it becomes apparent that I will age another year without getting the opportunity to see my team in a Super Bowl.  The only other non-expansion team to have avoided playing on the big stage in that period is Detroit.  Now that I have two sons, who I’ve promised to take with me should hell freeze over, it brings the annual tease to another level of torture.

Just below that is when I realize that a division title will not be possible, thereby removing the excitement of attending a home playoff game with my boys.  I have been to every home playoff game since the Jets moved to New Jersey in 1984.  All four of them.  And none since January 2002.

And then there are the years when the team is so bad, I can’t bear watching and I would rather have them tank to gain better draft position than eke out a few extra victories.  I see no benefit in the Jets finishing 6-10 instead of 3-13.  These are quick executions, where I hit all three pressure points in a short period and just give up.  These are the Rich Kotite Jets, the Kyle Mackey Jets, the years when the team is so noncompetitive, I don’t squawk when my family plans conflict with the games.

Not that I’m there yet after watching the Jets lose to Houston, 23-17, on Monday night.  But I can see it on the horizon.

I understand that the undefeated Texans were as big a lock as the Giants on Sunday for those still alive in suicide pools this week.  How could I be upset with the result?  Some might be comforted in the fact that the Jets played a tough team close just a week after getting slaughtered by San Francisco.

Not me.  I’ve seen enough bad football in my lifetime to recognize a team that will soon be playing out the string.  The offense stinks.  The defense stinks.  Turnovers and special teams plays can keep you in games like this one, but you need more to close out wins.

And this was winnable.  The NFL season is rife with upsets.   Even without their top offensive (wide receiver Santonio Holmes) and defensive (cornerback Darrelle Revis) players, the Jets had their chances playing at home against a team that took the pedal off the accelerator after the first half.

The coaching staff exhausted the playbook, pulling out every trick.  Fake punt.  Onside kick.  Cornerback Antonio Cromartie going long as a receiver.  Tim Tebow throwing long.  A screen pass!  Six offensive linemen to pass block.  Varying blitz packages.

Some worked, some didn’t.  In the end, the Jets were doomed by the same things that have plagued them all year.  They were outrushed by 100 yards.  Houston pressured quarterback Mark Sanchez all night, with three sacks and numerous passes batted down, while the Jets had only a few hits on quarterback Matt Schaub.  Sanchez completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes for the fourth straight game while being unable to avoid those game-changing negative plays that are so difficult for this team to overcome.

In this case, it was the oh-so-predictable red zone interception in the closing seconds of the first half.  From the Houston 12-yard line and trailing, 14-7, Sanchez locked on receiver Jeremy Kerley’s slant, allowing Houston defensive end J.J. Watt to get his hands in the ball’s path and partially deflect it over Kerley and into the hands of cornerback Brice McCain.  McCain’s 86-yard return set up the field goal that put the Texans up by 10 at the half.

In the fourth quarter, the Jets couldn’t punch in a first-and-goal from the Houston three-yard line, settling for a field goal to cut the deficit to six points, and then had two other opportunities to engineer a drive to take the lead.  The first ended on a sack of Sanchez in Houston territory that forced a punt and the second on another tipped-ball interception of Sanchez by Kareem Jackson.

For those pining for Tebow to supplant Sanchez, I can’t explain why, given Sanchez’ horrific play most of the year, but I felt like he had a late-game comeback in him last night, just like the last-minute win he engineered over the Texans in 2010.

That seems like a decade ago as I write Tuesday morning.  This is a much different team.  I can’t imagine Tebow, with an arm more erratic than Sanchez, being able to execute any better.

At 2-3, these Jets are not out of anything, but neither do I believe that last night’s game means they have righted the ship.  Still, there have been crazier turnarounds in the NFL (like with Tebow’s Broncos last year).  Looking at the schedule, there aren’t too many games against stacked teams like these last two opponents.  Of course, those upcoming opponents are probably looking at the Jets logo on their schedules and feeling pretty confident too.

The Jets host Indianapolis next week, with the Colts coming off an emotional win over the Packers in honor of their ailing coach.  Then comes the first of two games with New England, the only remaining 2011 playoff qualifier on the schedule.  I’ll know soon enough whether this season will be a complete write-off.

I’m not giving up, but I can see three levels of pain heading my way.

Are you ready to give up on the J-E-T-S? Be heard in the comments below…


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