FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In another season, in a different circumstance, Rex Ryan might have seen the game for what it was: a rebound effort against the most important rival, led by a poised, confident quarterback that should provide a sliver of optimism for the future.
But this is what the Jets' 27-25 loss to the New England Patriots on Thursday also was: a loss in a last gasp chance to salvage a wayward season, to provide a small foundation for hope against a plainly weakened champion. And so there was no victory -- moral or real -- over a divisional foe that might propel the Jets forward into the second half of the season, but instead a loss lowlighted by maddening mistakes committed by an undermanned roster that wasted Geno Smith's best and gustiest game of the season and sent the Jets plummeting even further into the abyss in which their season now resides.
That is the bleak version Ryan saw and it was plain from the moment that he stepped behind his podium that he was more angry than sad for what has been lost this season. A reporter noted that Ryan seemed more agitated than he had ever been before and Ryan readily agreed. The noose is surely tightening around Ryan's own future but he was not resigned Thursday night as much as he was furious -- at the close call that might have turned the season, at the mistakes that even he can not seem to coach out of his limited roster. The penalties in the red zone that stall drives. The blown coverages that allow touchdowns. They all blur into a box score that shows only another Jets loss, the sixth in a row, but the manner of this loss was particularly galling to Ryan because the Jets finally played the type of game they wanted, controlling the clock with a powerful running game and forcing Tom Brady into an erratic night.
"It played out really the way it has a lot of the season," Ryan said. "At times, it looks like we are good enough to win and then we make too many mistakes."
There will be time later -- really, for the rest of the season -- to wonder if the Patriots' problems are fatal, if the absence of linebacker Jerod Mayo might so permanently damage the defense that it will be gashed for long drives as it was by the Jets, who rushed for 218 yards and held the ball for nearly 41 minutes. The Patriots certainly do not look like a Super Bowl contender right now and if they were playing a more talented team Thursday night, they would have lost.
But the Patriots do not have to look flawless now. At 5-2, they lead the division over three deeply flawed pursuers, none of whom have the quarterback or the coaching or the track record of figuring things out. They have time on their side, to erase their troubles before the playoffs begin, just as they did after the offensive line was so shaky in the first few games of the season.
The Jets do not have that luxury -- not of time, and not of personnel to fix what ails them. Antonio Allen, the safety turned corner turned safety must be so confused by where he is supposed to be that he blew two coverages badly that resulted in touchdowns, the first on a first-drive 49-yard bomb to Shane Vereen, the second on the Amendola touchdown. Two holding penalties stalled the first two drives into the red zone, forcing the Jets to settle for field goals. The Jets played well enough to win just as they did against the Broncos. But when they are facing the game's elite, they have no margin for error and they have plenty of error.
"Our guys gave everything they had, obviously, and didn't play the smartest game in the history of the sport, without question, on defense in particular," Ryan said. "You know, to say it is a disappointing loss, I think is a fair assessment. I just, you know, we've been snake bit. I don't know how many touchdowns we have given up on third downs this year, when you've got them where you want them, but we've given up a bunch of them and most of the time it is our own fault. Well, that's tough to handle. I love the way our guys competed. I love the way we ran the football. And you know, it's just ridiculous to stand here after a loss, and to think where our team is at. It's not where this team should be. There is way too much fight, way too much heart and, you know, I just hope that it levels out."
The time for leveling out, at least for Ryan, seems to be over because while there is plenty of heart and fight -- a testament to the players' devotion to Ryan -- there is too little talent. The Jets are done with their six-game run through some of the game's premier quarterbacks and it went as badly as feared with a bare bones secondary. They lost to all of them and if they emerge from Thursday night wondering what Smith might be capable of when surrounded by better talent, well, they're going to have to wait until next year to find out and they'll probably have to find out with a new coach.
The schedule eases up from here, at least on paper, but the Jets have a new reality with a much lower ceiling: if they play their very best game, they can stay close -- but probably not beat -- the game's best teams, and if they play something less than their best, they are flawed enough to lose to anybody.
"We know we're good enough to win," Ryan said. "It was there for us."