ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we recap an eventful Week 17 in the NFL, while taking in the Jets’ meltdown in snowy Western New York....
• Alas, there’s a reason why he’s an itinerant quarterback, playing for six different teams in his 11-season NFL career, including four in the past four years. Throws like the one Ryan Fitzpatrick made with a little over 10 minutes left on Sunday against the Bills, with the Jets’ season hanging in the balance, have always been a part of his story.
Fitzpatrick cruelly threw away New York’s playoff chances in Week 17 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and there’s no way to avoid that stark reality. On second down from the Bills' 14, and with the Jets in position to do no worse than kick a field goal and take their first lead of the game at 20–19, Fitzpatrick uncorked the kind of interception that can haunt a franchise and a fan base, and he seemed to understand what he wrought when Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin stepped in front of Eric Decker in the end zone with 10:43 remaining and Buffalo leading 19–17.
It was a win-and-you’re-in scenario for these Jets (10-6), and they lost. So they’re out. They’re done. Just like that. Just when it seemed like they were poised to make some real trouble for the higher seeds in the AFC playoff field. New York’s defeat shifted the playoff-clinching celebration down I-90 to Cleveland, where the Steelers (10–6) drubbed the Browns 28–12, to atone for last week’s mistakes at Baltimore and wrap up the AFC’s No. 6 seed.
“It’s the hardest, most difficult end to a season I ever had, in terms of how I feel right now and how painful of a loss that was,” said Fitzpatrick, whose three fourth-quarter interceptions will forever remain the easy summation of this crushing Jets loss. “There’s not a whole lot of talking (in the locker room) right now. It’s hard to come up with words. It’s hard to even think about right now. It hurts. It hurts me a lot. After this interview I have to walk back in there with the feeling of not playing your best and not making the plays we needed to win.”
Fitzpatrick wasn’t the only Jet who wasn’t ready for his close-up against the Bills, with a playoff berth on the line. New York had a series of drops, costly penalties, breakdowns in the defensive secondary, and the Jets’ No. 1-ranked run defense gave up 115 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. But Fitzpatrick, after his surprising season of success, will wear this loss the longest and the hardest.
“If it wasn’t for Ryan Fitzpatrick, we wouldn’t be in this position,” said Jets receiver Brandon Marshall, not hearing the irony of his own words. Even in voicing his support for his quarterback, Marshall said what many had to be thinking. When the Jets needed their quarterback to come up the biggest, he turned back into the journeyman passer who has always left some people scratching their heads in terms of his decision making. Throws like his first interception against the Bills are when his well-known label for intelligence mocks him. Because Harvard or no Harvard, Fitzpatrick has always been a guy who can suffer a brain cramp at the worst possible time, prompting him to gamble when he should have played it safe.
The Bills knew that. Fitzpatrick played in Buffalo from 2009-2012, longer than any of his five other NFL stops. “As a defender, you have to remember Fitz is still Fitz,” said McKelvin last week, in the build-up to Sunday’s game. “He’s going to always give you opportunities to make plays.”
Ouch. But McKelvin was ultimately proven correct. Fitzpatrick entered play Sunday with 13 touchdowns and just one interception in his past five games, all Jets wins. Then he threw three picks inside of the game’s final 11 minutes, finishing his day an ugly 16 of 37 for 181 yards, with two touchdowns, three interceptions and a 42.7 passer ranking. That he broke the Jets' team record for touchdown passes in a season with 31 won’t offer any salve. His only interception of the season in either the red zone or the end zone was the one that doomed New York’s Cinderella story. That pass—and a later interception in the fourth quarter—was the first time all year Fitzpatrick was intercepted when he threw in Decker’s direction.
“Yeah, it was a tough,” said Fitzpatrick, who has still never made the playoffs in his NFL career, a fate he shares with Marshall, a 10-year veteran. “All you can ask for in this game is just an opportunity. And as poorly as we played in the first quarter, we picked it up and we had an opportunity at the end to win the game. We weren’t able to pull it off and my heart hurts so bad right now for all those guys in the locker room.”
Fitzpatrick knows he took too much of a risk on a second down, with the Jets in easy field goal range and desperately trying to climb all the way out of an early 14–0 hole. Playing it safer, he admitted, “in hindsight, that probably would have been the best thing to do.”
The Jets let a golden opportunity slip away against an injury-depleted Bills team, and that takes a good bit of the luster off a season that was so much more fruitful than anybody had the right to expect of head coach Todd Bowles’s first year on the job. The only team to beat New York twice this season was the Rex Ryan-coached Bills, both times by the same 22–17 score. So while Ryan’s streak of keeping the Jets out of the playoffs is now at five years, New York has to swallow a very bitter pill at the end of mostly sweet ride.
“You win the game, you go (to the playoffs),” Bowles said. “You don’t, you lose. We understand the consequences of it and we’ve got to live with it. We were building something. We’re a work in progress and we’re growing. We’ve got a lot more growing to do, but we made some strides. We’ve just got to make more.”
The Jets thought they were ready to clear this hurdle. But they found out otherwise, and it’s going to be a long offseason filled with regret.
“I thought we were battle-tested. I thought we were comfortable in situations like this,” Marshall said somberly. “You have to be able to push through at the end and we didn’t get the job done. I’m a little numb right now. I have no emotion.
“At the end we had our chances, and we don’t come through. We’ve got to take advantage of that moment. This is when you get a chance to make your name, and we just didn’t do that.”
Fitzpatrick’s name was made on Sunday, but only in that nightmare scenario that athletes have to occasionally endure, as the price of the being in the arena. He had the Jets' season in his hands, and it got away from him. In the worst way imaginable.
• No team experienced Christmas coming in January quite like the Steelers in Week 17, making the playoffs after all thanks to their win at Cleveland and that Bills’ upset of the visiting Jets. But at this point, I’m not really buying the premise that Pittsburgh enters the postseason as very dangerous team. Not after the past two weeks, when the Steelers lost at Baltimore and struggled for a while to subdue the 3–13 Browns.
Especially if Pittsburgh doesn’t have veteran running back DeAngelo Williams for its first-round playoff game next week. Williams injured his right ankle in the second quarter in Cleveland, and that’s a big question mark for the Steelers this week. Remember last year, when Steelers lead back Le’Veon Bell missed Pittsburgh’s playoff game against Baltimore with a knee injury? The Steelers lost handily to the visiting Ravens without their top ground-gainer.
It’ll help that sixth-seeded Pittsburgh draws a rematch with AFC North champion Cincinnati, the third seed, in the playoffs. The Steelers know the Bengals well and beat them 33–20 on the road in Week 14. That win should give Pittsburgh confidence. But to down Cincinnati a second time on the road, even with A.J. McCarron at quarterback for the Bengals, the Steelers will have to look considerably sharper than they have the past two weeks in the AFC North.
• Denver and New England are the AFC’s top two seeds. Big surprise. This marks the fourth year in a row that the Broncos and Patriots have earned the No. 1 and 2 slots. The Patriots earned the No. 1 spot in 2014, with the Broncos nailing it down in 2012, 2013 and this year.
The Patriots made the Super Bowl as No. 1 seed last season, and Denver did the same in 2013. In 2012, both teams got upset before the Super Bowl, by Baltimore.
• The Broncos have to ride with Peyton Manning again now. He didn’t light up San Diego with his arm once he entered the game in the third quarter, replacing the ineffective Brock Osweiler, but Denver’s offense looked more dangerous when he was in the game. Manning looked comfortable, and the Broncos seemed to thrive on his presence, scoring 20 points once he returned midway through the third.
With the top seed secured by Denver’s 27-20 win, the Broncos have gone on a complete roller-coaster ride in recent days, facing the prospect of missing the playoffs altogether before Monday night’s clutch win at home against Cincinnati. But while Osweiler did some quality work in Manning’s place, this is again No. 18’s team as the playoffs commence. And the two weeks Manning has before he’ll be asked to play again should help him further heal his plantar fascia injury.
• New England isn’t exactly peaking as the playoffs loom. The Patriots went with a very conservative game plan in the first half of a 20-10 loss at Miami, calling 21 runs and just five passes in the opening 30 minutes. But maybe it was a self-preservation move for Tom Brady’s sake, because No. 12 was hit repeatedly whenever he dropped back in the pocket.
The Patriots lost their shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC with their loss and the Denver win, but New England must not fear going back on the road against the Broncos, who beat them in Week 12 in overtime. A return to health is the key for any shot the Patriots have of repeating as Super Bowl champions, and now with Brady nursing a right ankle injury, that’s what the next two weeks is all about.
• Nothing in the league has felt more fluid the past few weeks than the pecking order of the AFC’s elite class, and I’m not sure anyone in the conference deserves to enter the Super Bowl tournament with the designation of favorite. Denver is back at the No. 1 seed, but the Broncos still look a little vulnerable, with a passing game that continues to sputter, even with the return of Peyton Manning.
With New England’s continued injury issues, and Cincinnati’s loss of Andy Dalton, nobody in the AFC’s top half of the bracket has anything approaching an air of invincibility. Maybe this is one of those playoff seasons where a bottom half seed like Kansas City (5th), Houston (4th) or Pittsburgh (6th) is primed to make some noise.
• Speaking of Houston, if there’s an AFC playoff team I’d be a little wary of if I were one of the favorites it would be those Texans. Houston wrapped up the AFC South with a commanding 30–6 rout of visiting Jacksonville, and that makes it seven wins in nine games since the the Texans started 2–5. And the way the Texans' defense is playing, even being a home underdog next week against Kansas City or Denver shouldn’t be too daunting.
J.J. Watt, playing with two hands again, was lethal against the Jaguars, recording three sacks, three tackles for loss, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery. That’s a month of production for most players, but your typical healthy NFL game day for Watt.
If Brian Hoyer can stay upright and efficient, and keep feeding receiver DeAndre Hopkins the ball, the Texans defense is good enough to do the rest, stealing a playoff win or two. The loss of offensive left tackle Duane Brown to a right leg injury on Sunday was a damaging blow to Houston, but the Texans will only go as far as their defense takes them in the postseason.
• The Bengals ended the season with three losses in their final five games, but at least they found out that they can win games and pretty much run their entire offense with second-year quarterback A.J. McCarron under center, replacing the injured Andy Dalton. McCarron had a pair of touchdown passes in Cincinnati’s 24–16 home win over Baltimore, and before you consider his performance nothing special, recall what the Ravens did to the Steelers last week.
The best omen, as I have pointed out before, is that the Bengals are 12–4 for the third time in franchise history. The other two instances came in 1981 and 1988, the only two Super Bowl seasons in Cincinnati’s 48-season existence.
• I’m not really sure if Arizona getting dominated 36–6 at home by Seattle hurts the Cardinals’ confidence level, but it can’t help but boost the Super Bowl hopes of the Seahawks. If Seattle should have to go back into Glendale in the playoffs, Pete Carroll’s team can feed off the reality of having had their way with Arizona, even when the Cardinals were playing starting quarterback Carson Palmer in the first half.
Anything can happen in a one-game season, but the Cardinals are still my pick to survive the NFC playoff field and remain standing on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara.
• Johnny Manziel going to Las Vegas this weekend tells me he definitely wants out of Cleveland. It’s the NFL version of asking the Browns to not throw him in the briar patch. What a disaster Cleveland is once again, with nothing but questions at head coach, general manager and starting quarterback as the offseason descended.
Coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer got canned as expected, and because the Browns know how to do firings by now, they are again in the market for their next victims, even before Black Monday opens. I heard pretty strong rumblings Sunday that Chip Kelly is interested in the Browns job, but that just makes me wonder if Kelly is feeling desperation to land his next job and get busy rehabbing his reputation after the mess in Philadelphia?
• Sean Payton is the biggest wild-card in the coaching carousel picture, because to get him away from New Orleans, suitors might have to give up compensation. Not that I think a second-round pick is out of line for a guy with a Super Bowl ring on his resume, and several playoff trips to his credit.
Indianapolis makes the most sense to me, because Colts’ owner Jim Irsay is all about maximizing Andrew Luck’s Super Bowl window of opportunity. But the buzz about Payton possibly being interested in the 49ers job last year also makes for an intriguing option, if he still believes Colin Kaepernick is fixable. And then there’s the Giants, where Payton once served as an offensive coordinator. New York loves to go with a coaching candidate who has previous ties to the Giants.
• I never expected the Giants to be in a rush to show Tom Coughlin the door, that’s just not the organization’s way. So allowing him to take some time in figuring out the end game in his 12-year coaching stay is part of the way New York is showing him the respect he deserves.
But the Giants won’t let this linger too long, because teams that dawdle in the hiring process don’t always get their top choices when it comes to building a staff of assistants. By mid-week at the latest, I’d expect the Giants situation to be clear-cut and the organization’s first coaching search since January 2004 well underway.