By Steve Lichtenstein
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It was a game only Rex Ryan could love.
The Jets hosted their former coach and his Bills on Thursday night in a contest that was not only chock full of defense and punts, but also had more than a fair share of coaching blunders.
Despite nearly blowing a 22-3 second-half lead, Ryan could smile at the end of the night because Jets coach Todd Bowles and his staff were more irresponsible in their play calling and couldn’t take advantage of numerous opportunities to get over the final hump, losing 22-17.
This one will stick in the Jets’ craw for the next 10 days until they get to face Houston a week from Sunday. Not only did 5-4 Gang Green squander a winnable game against a division rival that could very well come back to bite it in its fight for a postseason berth, but it allowed Ryan — who, as expected, made himself the story before, during and after the game — to bask in unwarranted glory.
Even with this bitter defeat that did not reflect well on your successor, Rex, I will unequivocally respond to your postgame remark: We don’t want you back.
Ryan brought back to MetLife Stadium many of the foibles that plagued the Jets during his six-year tenure that ended after last season’s dismal 4-12 campaign.
The disorganization that wasted all three second-half timeouts with over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The lack of killer instinct that should have put the Jets out of their misery in the third quarter but instead allowed them to sneak back into the game.
All that was missing was the Bills — the league’s penalty leader — getting flagged for committing an undisciplined late foul.
Ryan’s inborn conservatism on both sides of the ball made it look like the Bills were doing everything possible to hand the Jets the game.
Only the Jets refused to accept the gratuity.
Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey made numerous odd play-calling choices on key downs, none of which worked.
Particularly galling to Jets fans were the throws by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick behind the line of scrimmage. It’s one thing if they were checkdowns, but these all seemed to be by design.
The first occurred early in the fourth quarter on a fourth-and-two from the Bills’ 20-yard line. Out of the shotgun, Fitzpatrick threw immediately to the right side to wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The play had no chance as Bills cornerback Ronald Darby smothered Marshall on the catch.
On the Jets’ next drive, Fitzpatrick did broach the line of scrimmage with his third-and-four pass to Kenbrell Thompkins, but it was still two yards short of a first down and the Jets punted.
The final head-scratcher came after Buffalo punter Colton Schmidt dropped a long snap and was tackled on the Bills’ 13-yard line with about five minutes remaining. The Jets were poised to take the lead.
On a third-and-three from the six-yard line, Gailey had Fitzpatrick go back to the dry well. This time it was wide receiver Eric Decker, who was swallowed up by the Buffalo defense on a pass behind the line of scrimmage.
The fourth-down play somehow went to blocking tight end Kellen Davis, who told ESPN.com after the game that he never saw the ball after getting rerouted by a bump off the line. It fell incomplete in the end zone.
I’m not going to second-guess Bowles on his decisions to go for the two fourth downs, though it turned out that two field goals would have put the onus on the Buffalo offense to regroup and score in a pressure-packed situation. The aggressiveness was the right tactic at those junctures. But you had Marshall, Decker and Chris Ivory on the field, and the most important play of the game is for Davis?
The whole game plan was strange, with Fitzpatrick airing it out early in a driving rain to little effect. His numbers were ugly — 15-for-34 for 193 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions — though he was the victim of a few drops that could have boosted those figures. After three consecutive subpar performances, Ivory seemed to be again destined for non-factor status in the first half, gaining just 23 yards on eight carries.
The Jets were down, 12-3, at the intermission largely due to a pair of turnovers, one of which was a fumbled kickoff return by neophyte Devin Smith (who rarely performed this task in college) that the Bills’ Duke Williams scooped up at the 19-yard line and took to the house. And then the Bills opened the second half with their sole touchdown drive of the night.
The Jets did do a better job unleashing their weapons in the second half. They got Ivory the ball into some space, both via handoffs and on screen passes. He finished with 135 yards from scrimmage. Decker had five receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
But it was Ivory’s fumble — one of four Jets turnovers that the Bills converted into 12 points — early in the third quarter that set up the field goal that provided Buffalo with a 22-3 lead.
After the Jets’ victory over Jacksonville last Sunday, I was curious to see the impact that turnovers had on games’ outcomes. It was no surprise to learn that, according to pro-football-reference.com, teams that win the turnover battle win the war about 78 percent of the time. Dropping down further, since 2010, teams that had a takeaway ratio of at least plus-four have gone 114-3 (.974 winning percentage).
Even if you took away Fitzpatrick’s desperation pass that was intercepted in the final seconds, the Bills would have been plus-three, a number which translated into 155 victories against just 10 defeats for the teams on the plus side since 2010.
It takes extraordinary circumstances to overcome such a turnover differential, but the Jets got real close. It’s not hard to imagine them converting just one of those late opportunities into seven points. How Ryan-esque would it have been if his club had become loser No. 11?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.