FOXBORO, Mass. -- Strange and curious vibe in the Jets' locker room after Sunday's deflating 30-21 loss to the Patriots, a team New York beat here at Gillette Stadium in the AFC playoffs not quite nine months ago. To be sure, you could tell the Jets lost this game, but there was a lot of energy spent on finding silver linings in the defeat, and that just doesn't mesh very well with the image of the bold and brash New Yorkers of the three-year Rex Ryan coaching era.
The Jets (2-3) are on a three-game losing streak, they're already two full games behind the co-leading Patriots and Bills (both 4-1) in the AFC East, and their oft-stated preseason goal of winning the division and entering the postseason with a top seed and home playoff games to look forward to seems in jeopardy before mid-October has arrived. So what gives with the glass-half-full approach? This is a franchise that sets the bar extremely high and never backs away from the big talk, and it sounds almost hollow when its players attempt to do so.
"Knowing how good this [Patriots] team is playing here, I think you get some encouragement by making some plays, as far as in the running game and offensively,'' Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson offered. "I don't think we turned the ball over, so that's something to be encouraged by.''
Then came cornerback Darrelle Revis, trying his hand at some optimism: "We did do some great things, but also we did things to hurt us. We've got to correct some things, but [Ryan] did like some of the consistency we had.''
And Plaxico Burress too was reading from the same piece of choir music: "We wanted to come out and run the football at them, which we did,'' Burress pointed out. "Shonn [Greene] did a really good job of running the football and hitting the holes, and the offensive line did a great job of opening up the holes for him. But at the end of the day, we just didn't execute the plays that we needed to execute. You have to be encouraged, and have to take away some of the good things we did today. But at the end of the day, we didn't score enough points.''
Which is another way of putting it when you lose. As in defeat. As in losing streak continues. As in a season that continues to get away from the Jets, Super Bowl predictions notwithstanding.
On one level, I get it. Though disappointed in his slumping club, Ryan decided Sunday evening was not the time to bury it, or read it the riot act. After playing horribly in consecutive losses at Oakland and Baltimore the past two weeks, the Jets played better losing football against New England, but that passed as progress on their sliding scale, and Ryan seized on anything positive he could get his hands on.
But losing by nine points to the team New York has targeted as the biggest obstacle to where it wants to go this season is no reason for even the mildest form of back-slapping. The big, bad Jets aren't being the Jets right now, and talking like they're at the first night of a support-group meeting -- "Hi, I'm Mark Sanchez, and I have a problem'' -- struck me as a form of tone deafness.
"Well, obviously they are the better team right now,'' said Ryan, in opening yet another postgame press conference without any of his trademark bravado. "The score obviously indicated that. I was encouraged though, [by] our team. We did some good things. I thought we got back to some runs and completions. I thought we did a good job offensively there.''
Yeah, but your Jets didn't do such a good job of converting third downs (just 3 of 11, for 27 percent), controlling the clock (just 26:05 of possession), or making the most of its drives (seven of New York's 11 drives were 3-and-outs). And the running game Ryan and his Jets were satisfied enough with? It gained all of 97 yards on 25 carries, for a 3.9 yard average and a long gain of 9.
In reality, it was the pass-happy Patriots who out ground-and-pound(ed) the Jets, rushing for 152 yards on 35 attempts behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis's career-best 136-yard rushing day -- the most productive game for a New England runner in three years.
But Ryan and Co. were determined to stay hopeful and on message in Sunday's postgame, and it was akin to whistling past the graveyard. As if they were trying to talk themselves into a mindset for this season suddenly on the brink, the Jets almost all repeated the notion that it's a long season, there's plenty of football remaining, and that they would stick together through this adversity. You've heard plenty of that before from other struggling clubs, but not the straight-shooting, tell-it-like-it-is Jets.
"I've seen enough football to know this is too early to start panicking and throw in the towel,'' Tomlinson said. "There are times you can't believe something that may be happening, like us losing three games, but we've got a lot of football games left to play. We've got five games in our division left. We don't need to be separating right now on this team. This is the time we need to stick together. I think we've got a good locker room. I think we've got guys who have been around long enough to not panic.''
Trust me, I've covered enough NFL locker rooms to know this: When players start repeating the mantra that it's too early to start panicking, they are almost always in the process of starting to panic. It's as if their hearts are already there, and their heads are trying to talk themselves out of the notion.
Nevermind any of the postgame talking points, the Jets are making things very difficult on themselves. True, a brutal three-game road trip is over, and maybe the rebound is bound to begin because of that happy piece of news. After all, as Tomlinson took pains to point out, New York is 2-0 at home, and 0-3 on the road this season. Next Monday night's home game against winless Miami (0-4) means the schedule is about to turn softer, then comes a visit from San Diego and a revitalizing bye week awaits in Week 8.
But getting in the habit of sugar-coating things can be dangerous for any losing team, especially one that seemingly feeds off its own confidence level as much as Ryan's club. At 2-3, the Jets can't afford to fall much further behind Buffalo and New England and still harbor dreams of hitting the playoffs with one of the AFC's top two or three seeds, if they make the dance at all. That's what a three-game losing streak can do to a contender, and maybe New York could use a little of that cold reality splashed in its face about now.
"I never thought I would be here, losing three straight,'' Ryan said. "But that's where we are right now. We've earned it, and we've got to get better. I have seen this team, and it's a resilient team. I think we'll be right there and I think we'll get better. You know, we are the only NFL team in history to go to the playoffs having overcome two three-game losing streaks (as a No. 6 seed wild card in 2009). We've been down that road before, but to get back to winning, you have to roll your sleeves up and get after it. Start working and preparing and believing in each other and we can turn the tide.''
If anyone got the tone right in the wake of this latest Jets loss, to me it was Sanchez, the team's third-year quarterback and an emerging team leader. When a reporter asked Sanchez if this New York team now needs to change its mentality, forgetting about the goal of securing a home playoff game and a division title, and just grind away for the next 11 games, Sanchez dropped into a modified Jim Mora-like mode with his answer.
"Forget about the postseason right now,'' said Sanchez (think Mora's "Playoffs?!! Playoffs?!!''). "It's not like we're out of this thing, but we need to just win. Just win [and] get back to our winning ways and be better on third down -- that's what got us beat tonight. It's got to start against Miami. But forget where we're going to be seeded and all that. It doesn't matter. We just need to win. This is a little different territory, so we're going to see what a lot of guys are made of on this team.''
That's the mentality Ryan and his reeling Jets need right now. Nothing matters but winning. Not the improvement in the running game. Not the better balance on offense that still ended up producing an L. Not the lack of turnovers, or better pass protection afforded Sanchez, or increased red-zone execution. Taking a page from the late, great Al Davis, whose death loomed over this NFL weekend like a sad coda, the Jets need to just win, Baby. Victory has a way of taking care of everything.
And while they're at it, the Jets need to all start talking like the Jets again. Seeking out silver linings may be fine for some, but they don't play all that well in New York. I'm guessing Ryan and his players know that already, but if they don't, it's something they should soon learn.