By Steve Lichtenstein
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The scoreboard at the end of the MetLife Bowl on Saturday night may have read Jets 28, Giants 18, but for me the real outcome of that preseason game wasn’t decided until Sunday.

For if the news delivered that afternoon regarding the condition of rookie defensive lineman Leonard Williams was more adverse than merely a “muscle strain” in his knee — such as a torn ligament — then the Jets would have been the big losers.

According to various reports, an MRI on Williams’ knee showed no ligament damage and he is not expected to be out “long-term.”  Since no one of any importance is expected to play in the fourth and final preseason game on Thursday against Philadelphia, the reports indicated Williams could be ready for the regular-season opener versus Cleveland in two weeks.

All I really care about in these exhibitions is that the Jets come out of them in decent health.  I know I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating to all those fans who are somewhere between relieved and ecstatic that the Jets finally “showed them something” by toying with their discombobulated rivals on Saturday night:

In 1992, Browning Nagle looked like the second coming of Joe Namath en route to a 5-0 preseason.  The Jets went 4-12 once the games started to count.

There are few things in sports more meaningless than preseason football results.  Anyone remember that the Giants went 5-0 last preseason?  It took the G-Men 15 regular-season games to eclipse that win total.

The fact that Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick picked apart a depleted Giants secondary on Saturday is in no way a precursor of what he will do to the Browns.

If Williams — who limped off the MetLife Stadium field in the second quarter and did not return — was lost for a significant period, however, I believe that would have impacted the Week 1 point spread.

In the big picture, the Jets can ill afford this to be a season in which their number six overall draft pick doesn’t make a contribution.  Not coming off a 4-12 year during which their talent — as then assembled by deposed general manager John Idzik — was exposed as drastically deficient at so many positions.

Defensive line wasn’t supposed to be one of them.  Last year the Jets were fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (93.1) and sixth in average yards per carry (3.8).  Considering there were a half-dozen or so games where their opponents held commanding leads and could have easily taken the air out of the ball, those numbers aren’t too shabby.

The Sheldon Richardson/Damon Harrison/Muhammad Wilkerson front three was at times magnificent.

However, with Richardson suspended for at least the first four games of the season — let’s not forget that his punishment for a separate driving incident has not been meted out — for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, the Jets have been counting on Williams to fill a huge void.

Not that Williams has been a world-beater in his limited action in three preseason games, nor did his sack and safety against Atlanta’s second stringers matter either.  The point is that the Jets’ coaching staff had already penciled in Williams to seamlessly replace Richardson, and not lose any of the stoutness in their run defense.  Leger Douzable is a nice sub, but in my opinion he is not an every-down lineman.

The 6-foot-5, 302-pound Williams not only eats up space, but has the quickness to create havoc in the backfield.  Jets guard Willie Colon recently compared Williams’ skill set to former Patriot Richard Seymour.

You can be thrilled about the improvements the Jets made on the offensive side of the ball — with Fitzpatrick much more adept at ball security than the battered Geno Smith –and the addition of wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the Jets’ artillery.  But the reality is that the Jets’ defense needs to play at an elite level if they have dreams of reaching greater heights.

We can thank new general manager Mike Maccagnan for going out and contracting some professionals to play in the secondary this year.  I expect coach Todd Bowles will have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie play a lot of press coverage.  That, in turn, should free up the linebackers to play with less predictability, so maybe their overall lack of speed won’t be exposed chasing opposing receivers so often.

But Football 101 teaches us that the game is often won and lost at the line of scrimmage.  The Jets appeared to have dodged another bullet that could have shot them down prior to takeoff in that Wilkerson was able to play 26 of 38 snaps with the first-team defense on Saturday in his preseason debut, according to ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini.  Wilkerson had been sidelined with a hamstring injury.

Wilkerson was credited with three tackles and a half-sack for a defense that yielded 38 first-half rushing yards on 13 Giants carries and took down quarterback Eli Manning twice.  The Giants were limited to one drive for a touchdown, which they gave back at the end of the half with a pick-six by Cromartie.

But again, I learned a long time ago that you can’t take anything away from these exhibitions.  They’re pure money grabs by NFL owners and their TV network enablers.  The only players who benefit are those on the bottom rung who need a showcase to either shoot up the depth chart and make the squad or for prospective employers elsewhere in the league should they get cut.

Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson hasn’t appeared in a preseason game since 2011.  During his meeting with the media last Tuesday, Peterson called for the NFL to reduce the number of these exhibitions to three games, citing the high level of injury risk to the players.

The fact that the Jets got out of this preseason without a major injury to a key player (and no, I don’t place Smith in this category) is a huge win, even if they had surrendered more points to the Giants than they scored.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1

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