It is hyperbolic to over emphasize the importance of a single play in a NFL season comprised of sixteen games. A single moment should not have a multi week ripple impact that alters the course of an entire year. Pinpointing the moment or even game that was a turning point or season defining is an inherently subjective process than can often be narrative serving. This doesn’t mean there can’t be truth in the hunt for such a moment or there aren’t exceptions.
The 2015 New York Jets season has neatly been broken up into three distinct segments. The surprising 4-1 start, only marred by a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles thanks to a no show first half, as the team adjusted to the absence of Eric Decker and Chris Ivory. There was the mid-season 1-4 season swoon, only saved from 0-5 by the fortitude of playing a mediocre, young Jaguars team at home. Finally, there has been the recent four game winning streak, where the Jets have righted the ship against a less than impressive slate of opponents.You play who is on your schedule. There is no apology needed from the Jets for only playing one team with a winning record (New England). The league and particularly the AFC is a muddled mess of teams battling through injuries and inconsistent play. In six of their nine wins, the Jets have won by double digits and in four of their five losses, they have lost by one possession. They aren’t squeaking by in wins or getting blown out in losses, despite losing critical pieces like Sheldon Richardson, Bilal Powell, Calvin Pryor, Marcus Williams, Quincy Enunwa, Nick Mangold, and Darrelle Revis for chunks of the year.
With a 9-5 record, they have already improved five games from 2014’s 4-12 mess. With a win the final two weeks and a little help, they will be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. On Sunday, they face the 12-2 New England Patriots who have already wrapped up the AFC East and a bye week. But is there one play that could have made Sunday’s game more meaningful for both sides, potentially one for the division title? There just might have been.
After scoring a go ahead touchdown late in the third quarter of their week 7 match-up with the Patriots, the Jets were driving for more early in the fourth. With a 17-16 lead, they faced a 3rd down from New England’s 12 yard line with about 13 minutes left on the clock. Pro-Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall broke open in the end-zone and was hit with a picture perfect pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick.
He dropped it.
I don’t believe in the “Same Old Jets” BS that permeates Twitter and message boards throughout the season. Whatever happened in the 90s, 80s, 70s and so on had no bearing on that October day in New England. Yet, like many who were watching the game that day, I had a feeling that play would loom large in a negative way for the Jets. It wasn’t a “Same Old Jets’ thing. It was a playing the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick New England Patriots thing.
New England doesn’t lose many games, if you haven’t noticed. They don’t give you many windows to beat them on any given Sunday and when they do, if you don’t take advantage, you are going to lose. There is no guarantee the Jets win if Marshall catches that touchdown and they go up 24-16 with 13 minutes left but their odds sure as hell would have went up substantially.
What happened instead? New England put together back to back touchdown drives and iced the game. They converted a 3rd and 18 by taking advantage of backup safety Dion Bailey, in for an injured Calvin Pryor. They gashed the Jets blitz repeatedly, as the entire team played out of sorts after the Marshall drop.It was a gut punch play. It was a gut punch play, particularly because it came from Marshall, arguably the team’s best player and one of their emotional leaders. It is one thing if Jeremy Kerley or Jeff Cumberland drops that pass but it has an impact on a team when they see “the guy” letting the moment get to him.
The narrative leaving that game is New England brilliantly cooked up a plan to shut down Marshall, who had been torching secondaries left and right. New England won and Marshall dropped the pass so to the victor goes the spoils (and the narrative). Marshall still managed 4 catches for 67 yards. If he catches that pass, he finishes with 5 catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. The narrative isn’t there and New England let both Marshall and Eric Decker (94 yards) take advantage of them.
More importantly, the Jets likely win meaning at a bare minimum, they’d have a chance to take the AFC East lead this Sunday. The loss to the Patriots in week 7 kicked off their mid-season swoon. They were clearly hungover from it the following week in Oakland (yes, I’m aware Ryan Fitzpatrick left the game on the first drive but with how the Jets defense played and tackled that day, it didn’t matter who the quarterback was).
There were a multitude of reasons the Jets lost four of five games. The absence of Powell and Enunwa was more critical than many realized at the time and Mangold’s injury knocked an average offensive line down to scarily mediocre but that streak was launched by the New England loss. Could this have been a 12 or 13 win team if Marshall hangs on that football? It isn’t crazy to think it was a possibility.
The drop is distantly in the past now and Marshall has been arguably the best receiver in the NFL, not named Antonio Brown, over the past month. Sunday is a game the Jets will badly need him and their other “money” players to perform in, if they want to score an upset and keep their playoff hopes alive. You don’t beat New England without Marshall, Mo Wilkerson, Darrelle Revis, Eric Decker and company having their “A” games.
This week’s match-up sets up substantially more favorably for them than it did in week 7. Bilal Powell is back as the team’s third down and change of pace back, instead of the plodding Zac Stacy. Chris Ivory is healthy, not hampered by the leg injury he suffered on the first play of the previous match-up. Enunwa will be back as the team’s H-Back, an immensely critical piece of what they do on offense. Quinton Coples is cut. Demario Davis is playing less. Players like Lorenzo Mauldin, Erin Henderson and Rontez Miles are performing in bigger roles. Rising second year player Calvin Pryor is also healthy. The Patriots badly took advantage of his absence in the second half of the previous match-up.
On New England’s side, they won’t have Julian Edelman and are likely not to have Danny Amendola. The two combined for 13 catches, 140 yards and a TD in week 7. They may also be without Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower defensively.
All of that sounds well and good until you remember they still have Brady, they still have Belichick and they still have Gronk.
No win against the Patriots is easy or expected but this new regime and team needs a signature win for 2015. The Giants game was a gutsy comeback but that is a 6-8 team, more notable for their diva receiver’s antics than anything else. Wins against the Patriots are a must and are weighted disproportionately around this organization. Rex Ryan bought half a decade of goodwill from many for beating them three times in his first two years and those wins have blinded many to the reality that he is 1-9 since then against the Pats. Eric Mangini put a stamp on his “Mangenius” nickname with a road win over the Pats in 2006. Herm Edwards got a big late season one in 2002…the last time the Jets won the AFC East.
Obviously, the Jets are hoping to build something more sustainable than a flash in the pan victory over New England. It is good to hear Todd Bowles emphasize that Patriots week is worth one game and not a Super Bowl but it takes time for those words to have meaning and it is also going to take a few wins over the AFC East’s dominant team. This is only his second chance but it is a nice opportunity to show the Jets can compete with the league’s best, can potentially make noise in the playoffs and can be considered a legitimate contender for the AFC East in 2016.
It is all words and hypothetical unit you actually beat New England…until you actually catch the should be touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Brandon Marshall and the Jets have a chance for redemption at home on Sunday and a chance to maybe make a good season, great.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com