EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The idea that the Jets would've been in a playoff race was comical back in August. They may have thought they were going to be better than anyone expected, but that's because so many people expected them to finish 0-16.
The truth is, the Jets have squeezed more out of their depleted roster than anyone could have imagined. They've been competitive all season. They were over .500 at one point. Even a 3-5 mark at the halfway point even exceeds expectations.
But now that they've seen what they're capable of doing, that's not enough. They wanted so much more.
"It pisses me off that we've lost these close games," tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins said. "I'm sure everyone else is pissed off about it. It's frustrating. It's tough because you see those flashes and you're like, 'Wow!' We just need to sustain those flashes."
That's the sad hallmark of a young and growing team, perhaps even one that's a little bit ahead of schedule as these feisty Jets might be. They are good and talented enough to be in a lot of games, to have a chance to win most of them. However, they're not good enough to do what they need to do most: to finish, to make big plays in the fourth quarter.
And the result is what they got Sunday afternoon, a 25-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in which they led going in to the fourth quarter. They even had multiple opportunities to retake the lead with the ball in their hands near the end of the game. They squandered chances early, too. They missed two field goals. They blew two chances off turnovers in Falcons territory in the first half.
It's not that dissimilar to their 31-28 loss in Miami a week ago, when they blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, or their 24-17 loss to New England the week before that when they blew a shot to go up 21 points early and blew a chance to tie late. Those are three games that easily could have swung in their favor. That's the difference between their 3-5 record and what would've been a shocking 6-2 start.
"I look at it as we're not far," veteran receiver Jermaine Kearse said. "We're not far. It just takes doing the little things right.
"It's been tough, but honestly it's just growing pains," receiver Robby Anderson added. "We're going to get over this hump."
Eventually they will, maybe sooner than later, though at this point it will more likely happen next season with a different quarterback at the helm. The unfortunate reality for the Jets is their schedule is about to get tougher, with the Buffalo Bills (5-2), Carolina Panthers (5-3), Kansas City Chiefs (5-3), Denver Broncos (3-3) and New Orleans Saints (5-2) in the next six weeks.
Considering they'll need to go at least 6-2 in the second half just to be in the playoff conversation, their chances seem pretty slim.
Not that they're giving up -- they made that clear in the postgame locker room. But after three straight weeks of painful losses in games they believe they should have won, they are more accepting of their growing pains than they have ever been before.
"It's just frustrating," said Jets quarterback Josh McCown, who completed 26 of 33 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns. "It's frustrating because we're not closing games out. Not discouraged, though, because I feel like we're growing the same and building it. We just need to find a way to close out games. That's the next step for us. We're a new group that came together this year and we're trying to grow up fast and put our imprint on this offense and close out games. That's the next step for us. We just have to get that done."
At some point, they will. This Jets' rebuilding project is headed in the right direction. That's just not much consolation to the players on this team who know what kind of opportunity they let slip away this year. They are going to miss out on a playoff berth they will be certainly they could have had.
That will be a learning experience. Right now it's just a painful lesson to learn.