FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The second quarter of the NFL season began with the New York Jets offering up a serious threat to the New England Patriots in the AFC East. The third quarter of the season began in familiar fashion: With the Jets scrambling for - and losing - position in the wild-card race.
The Jets' playoff hopes were damaged Thursday night, when a furious late comeback fell short in a 22-17 loss to Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills. Despite losing three times in their last four games, the Jets (5-4) are still in a three-way tie for the two AFC wild-card spots with the Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers and a half-game ahead of the Oakland Raiders (4-4).
However, the Jets have lost to the Raiders as well as the Bills, which means they could be in tough shape tiebreaker-wise down the stretch. The Bills host the Jets in the regular-season finale Jan. 3.
"We're not even thinking playoffs right now," head coach Todd Bowles said Friday afternoon. "It's a long season. We're 5-4. We're in the middle of the pack with everybody else. We have a chance to win our ballgames and we'll look up at the end and see where we are."
All four contenders would seem to have good chances to win ballgames over the final half of the season. The Raiders' remaining opponents have a 30-35 record while the Steelers' opponents are 29-30 and the Bills and Jets are playing foes with a combined 28-30 mark.
Of course, the Jets know playoff talk will be irrelevant if they can't execute better than they have over the last month. On Thursday, the Jets lost the turnover battle 2-0, allowed a special teams touchdown when wide receiver Devin Smith fumbled a kickoff and failed to score the go-ahead touchdown after taking over at the Bills' 13-yard-line following a botched punt.
"We have a greater sense of urgency after each loss," Bowles said. "It's a matter of correcting mistakes in situational football. And that's what we're going to do."
REPORT CARD VS. BILLS
--PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus. The Jets have to hope QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (15-of-34, 193 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions) had his worst game of the season because of his damaged left thumb, and not because he's about to tail off over the second half as he has in every season as an NFL starter. Fitzpatrick opened the game with three misfires and didn't get much better from there. To be fair, he was done no favors by WR Brandon Marshall (three catches for 23 yards, one touchdown), who failed to corral a pass that was picked off by safety Corey Graham and later dropped a potential big gainer down the right sideline. Nor did offensive coordinator Chan Gailey help Fitzpatrick out with weird play calls in the red zone. One guy who had nothing to be ashamed about Thursday: WR Eric Decker (six catches for 85 yards and one touchdown), who continues to show an uncanny nose for the end zone.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: B. It looked as if the Jets might shy away from RB Chris Ivory (18 carries for 99 yards) when they opened the game with three straight passes, but Ivory instead re-established himself as the focal point of the offense with a strong game as both a runner and pass-catcher (two catches for 36 yards). But the Jets' depth behind the often nicked-up Ivory took a big hit when RB Zac Stacy suffered a season-ending ankle injury while returning a first-half kickoff. RB Stevan Ridley (negative-1 yard on three carries) made his season debut but looked predictably rusty in his first game in 13 months.
--PASS DEFENSE: B-minus. The Jets did a nice job of bottling up mobile QB Tyrod Taylor (six carries for 12 yards), who was sacked four times and found no running lanes when he did wriggle free. The box score says CB Darrelle Revis contained dynamic second-year WR Sammie Watkins (three catches for 14 yards), but Watkins had Revis beat badly on a first-quarter deep route before Revis caught up and Taylor underthrew the ball. It's not a good sign for injured CB Antonio Cromartie that the secondary looked better without him. The Jets, whose safety corps is ravaged by injuries, continued to have trouble containing tight ends and running backs in space: TE Charles Clay (five catches for 52 yards), RB LeSean McCoy (five catches for 47 yards) and RB Karlos Williams (a 26-yard touchdown catch) accounted for 11 of Taylor's 17 completions and 125 of his 158 passing yards.
--RUN DEFENSE: D. McCoy (19 carries for 112 yards) had no trouble breaking into open space as he collected five runs of at least 10 yards and two more of eight yards. He was particularly effective on the Bills' last drive, when he gained 32 yards as the Bills bled 2:23 off the clock and forced the Jets to use all their timeouts. Williams (seven carries for 24 yards) had a long gain of 10 yards. The Jets get a bit of the benefit of the doubt having played twice in five days, but this is three times now they've surrendered a 100-yard rusher this season.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus. New K Randy Bullock nailed his lone field-goal attempt and both extra points while punter Ryan Quigley, the reigning AFC Special Teams Player of the Week, averaged 51.6 yards on five boots. The Jets also gave themselves a chance to take the lead by pouncing on a dropped snap deep in Bills territory by P Colton Schmidt. But the Jets might have won the game if not for WR Devin Smith's second-quarter fumble of a kickoff, which was returned 19 yards for a touchdown by S Duke Williams. And Stacy's season-ending injury came when he inexplicably picked up a kickoff that looked ready to bounce out of bounds. WR Jeremy Kerley averaged just 3.5 yards on four returns and didn't elect a fair catch with 35 seconds left, when he wasted about 10 seconds dashing and darting his way to a six-yard return.
--COACHING: F. It's time to worry about Todd Bowles in the heat of the moment. He passed up the field goal in favor of going for the go-ahead touchdown with three minutes to go because he was worried the Jets might not get the ball back, but the Jets had just forced four straight three-and-outs. That's three times this season Bowles has hurt the Jets with clock management errors or questionable feel for the flow of a game. The fourth-down play dialed up by Gailey - in which seldom-used TE Kellen Davis was targeted in the end zone - made little sense, nor did the two behind-scrimmage passes by Fitzpatrick earlier in that drive.