Rex Ryan's defense gave everything it had. But that wasn't enough to offset the damage done by Geno Smith.
In what likely was Ryan's final home game as the Jets' coach, his quarterback wasted a near-flawless game plan against Tom Brady and the Patriots. And after the Jets' 17-16 loss yesterday at MetLife Stadium, Ryan and his players lamented what could have been.
"This was going to be our Super Bowl," rookie safety Calvin Pryor said shortly after the Patriots (12-3) clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs.
It was a game the Jets (3-12) had to win for the sake of their pride, and one the beleaguered Ryan desperately wanted against coaching nemesis Bill Belichick. But with the momentum firmly in hand, Smith found a way to hand-deliver the victory to New England.
Not only did his third-quarter interception position the Pats for the go-ahead touchdown, but he was sacked twice at crunch time in the fourth quarter.
"Pretty darn critical," a visibly frustrated Ryan said of Smith's sack on the Jets' final drive.
On third-and-4 at the Patriots' 24, Smith was taken down by Dont'a Hightower for a 10-yard loss. Then Nick Folk's 52-yard field-goal attempt was tipped by Vince Wilfork with 5:16 to play.
"That's something you have to learn from," Ryan said. "You can't take a sack there no matter who is in your face. Get rid of the football."
Smith, who noted that he did "a pretty good job" of making decisions "for the most part," said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg often emphasizes the importance of not taking sacks while in field-goal range. Yet it still happened.
"As soon as I got the snap, I felt immediate pressure," Smith said. "In those situations, my job is to throw the ball away and prevent the sack. But I was bottled up in the pocket. I just tried to limit the loss and tried not to hurt us any more."
But that wasn't the only mistake he made. Smith was picked off by Jamie Collins in the third quarter on a pass intended for Jace Amaro. It was Smith's 34th interception in 28 career games. Brandon Browner took a lateral from Collins and returned the ball 2 yards to the Jets' 38. Eight plays later, running back Jonas Gray scored from the 1 to put New England ahead 17-13.
"Just a tad overthrown," Ryan said of the errant pass. "But it was a big play in the game."
Folk made it a one-point game, kicking a 37-yard field goal with 7:53 left, and the Jets appeared to be on the verge of a comeback thanks to a heads-up play by cornerback Marcus Williams. He intercepted a pass intended for Brandon LaFell at the New England 31, giving the Jets a short field to work with.
"I thought we had them," defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said, referring to the momentum provided by Williams' first career pick.
Like so many times before, though, the Jets' offense stalled -- and Folk missed the field goal.
The game wasn't the only thing the Jets lost. Center Nick Mangold (ankle) and receiver-kick returner Percy Harvin (ribs) had to leave with injuries.
The Patriots scored first on Rob Gronkowski's 3-yard touchdown catch over Pryor with 12:10 to go in the second quarter. But Smith threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jeff Cumberland with 5:59 left in the second quarter and Folk kicked two field goals to give the Jets a 13-7 lead.
"I really thought this was going to be our day," Ryan said.
So did Smith. "I can't explain how hard it's been all season for us to fall short time and time again," he said. "I just feel sorry for the fans. I feel sorry for everybody in the locker room because we're better than this."