EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For a little more than 57 minutes on Sunday, the New York Jets stepped out of time, back to when they still were filled with potential. When they were leading the New England Patriots by a point late in the game, it no longer mattered that they were in the middle of a lost season, playing for nothing but pride.
All that mattered was that the Patriots were going for it on fourth-and-4 from the Jets' 37 with 2:53 remaining, and that the Jets had stood up to their mighty nemesis, one stop away from a most improbable win.
And then …
"They made one more play than we did," Jets coach Todd Bowles said after Tom Brady led the Patriots to a late touchdown drive resulting in the Jets' 22-17 loss. "We should've got off the field on fourth down."
The incomparable Brady -- somewhat hobbled by a sore knee -- completed a four-yard pass to running back James White, and two plays later found rookie Malcolm Mitchell en route to the end zone to basically bring the game to a predictable end. Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had the ball stripped out of his hand on the ensuing drive.
The Jets arguably played their best game since Week 2, but as the cranky Sheldon Richardson summed up afterward: "Don't matter. We lost."
He's right, of course. None of it matters anymore. All the Jets did was remind everyone of what might have been.
The sad reality is that, at 3-8, only math stands between the Jets and official elimination -- four games behind in the wild-card chase (and trailing eight teams) with five games to go. Maybe if the Jets had played more often the way they did on Sunday, their fate would be more promising. They showed they might have had the talent to be better than where they are.
Take Fitzpatrick, for example, who has been a turnover machine all season long. In the words of his top receiver Brandon Marshall, he was "efficient" against New England, completing 22 of 32 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, without a single mistake until Patriots defensive end Chris Long stripped the ball out of his arm at the end. And Fitzpatrick, who has spent much of the season longing for the 1-2 punch at receiver that he had before Eric Decker got injured, found it as Marshall (six catches, 67 yards, one touchdown) and Quincy Enunwa (5-109-1) combined for 11 catches, two touchdowns and 176 yards.
Remember when the defense was supposed to be good? Yes, the aging Darrelle Revis was burned for another two touchdowns. But until Brady's final drive, the only touchdown the Pats scored came after a fumble by Jets rookie receiver Robby Anderson near midfield. The Jets set the tone by getting in Brady's face or hitting him six of the first 16 times he dropped back to pass.
Brady finished 30 of 50 for 286 yards and one touchdown, but before that fateful final drive, he had only thrown for 203 yards.
In the end, of course, the Jets were the Jets. The mistakes and the moment became too much to overcome.
"Playing hard for 3 3/4 quarters is encouraging," Bowles said. "But at the same time they made one more play than we did. We've got to find a way to finish the ball game."
But they didn't, just like they haven't done for most of this miserable season. Had they seized the moment on Sunday, perhaps it all would've been worth it. Even the Jets fans who had an eye on the future, who preferred to get a look at Bryce Petty at quarterback, had to get caught up in the excitement with three minutes to play. Beating the Pats would've mattered at that moment, even if the reality is it wouldn't have mattered much at all.
Instead, it was a big tease -- a show of how their record could have, should have been so much better.
"You have to take it for what it is," cornerback Buster Skrine said. "Nobody wants to be 3-8, but that's what we are right now."