- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rex Ryan packaged and sold these New York Jets as champions to be, and it turns out he was dealing in the currency of bad faith. Sunday night, in a game promoted as a win-or-else proposition by their head coach, the Jets looked no more likely than the Indianapolis Colts to win Super Bowl XLVI.
Sure, Ryan's team will probably make the playoffs for a third time in three seasons. The AFC West is something of a joke -- pending Thursday night's visit to the temple of Tebow, of course -- and it's hard to believe that three teams from the AFC North will earn bids to the postseason tournament.
But if the Jets are expected to be favored in their next five games, the New England Patriots are expected to be favored in their final seven. So what about that AFC East title that Ryan had declared so desirable and so necessary?
"It looks doubtful right now," a dejected Rex conceded after Patriots 37, Jets 16.
About as doubtful as the Jets' chances of, you know, winning it all.
"It's the same thing that's happened the last two years," Mark Sanchez said.
Meaning yet another division title for the Belichicks and Bradys, and yet another wild card for a Jets team that couldn't reach a Super Bowl after the 2009 and 2010 seasons, never mind win one.
Why should anyone believe that this time around will be any different? Sanchez isn't throwing at a championship level, his line isn't blocking at a championship level, the defense isn't defending at a championship level, and Ryan isn't coaching at a championship level.
Just like their most recent predecessors, the Jets aren't strong enough to win three consecutive road playoff games. "We think we're as good as they are," Ryan said of the Patriots, "but clearly we're not."
And that's a problem, a big one. The Patriots were hurting from their losses to the Giants and Steelers, and actually appeared ready to free-fall into their first three-game losing streak in nine years.
Bill Belichick found himself answering for an indefensible defense, and for personnel decisions that left New England without a single playoff victory since its Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Tom Brady?
He'd been getting knocked around so much, people were starting to wonder if he was still in Eli Manning's class.
Mike Pettine, Jets defensive coordinator, felt emboldened enough to announce that Brady wasn't the same player without his injured center, Dan Koppen, and that the three-time champ was getting "a little more anxious" when the walls of his pocket started closing in around him.
But with Rob Gronkowski towering over the Jets' secondary, Brady shredded Gang Green for 329 yards and three touchdowns and badly outplayed Sanchez, who was sacked five times and intercepted twice and who made a rookie mistake near the end of the first half that ultimately left the Jets a 5-4 mess.
With 1:24 remaining and the Jets about to score the go-ahead touchdown, Sanchez called timeout with 17 seconds left on the play clock, a move that allowed Brady to drive his team down the field and answer with a score of his own.
Ryan would tell NBC at halftime that Sanchez's timeout represented "the stupidest thing in football history," a point the losing quarterback didn't bother knocking down.
"I really hurt the team," Sanchez said. "I can't do that. ... I've just got to be better than that. ... That's a horrible mistake."
Ryan later tried to take responsibility for this disastrous twist of time mismanagement, if only to avoid wounding Sanchez as much as he wounded him last year by nearly benching him in the Miami game. Pressed on why he was taking the fall for Sanchez, Ryan said, "Because I'm responsible for everything that happens with this football team."
On that he is correct. Ryan is the one who challenged the rest of the NFL to beat the Patriots, to stop leaving all the dirty work for his Jets.
Now Rex is the one who has to explain why the Giants, Steelers and Bills met his challenge, and yet his own team -- swept by New England -- did not.
"We've been down this road before," Ryan said. He was talking about the Jets' failure to seize the division, earn a home game or two, secure a first-round bye.
"What am I going to say?" Rex asked. "Maybe I should guarantee the fact that we're out of it. Last time I did that [in 2009], we made the playoffs. So yeah, we've got no chance."
Truth is, the Jets stand a good chance to return to the postseason. They've got the Broncos, Bills, Redskins, Chiefs and Eagles before doing the Subway Series thing with the Giants and then finishing up in Miami. Even in their diminished state, the Jets could end up with 10 or 11 victories.
"We would've liked to win the thing," Sanchez said of the AFC East, "but we'll need some help from somebody else. If we get it, great, and if not, fine."
Only it's not fine. This time around, the Jets needed a fresh January formula, an easier road to the Super Bowl glories guaranteed by their coach.
Instead Rex Ryan is stuck with another wild card, a joker, a losing hand. He apologized to the fans Sunday night, and for good reason. He'd said the Jets positively needed to have this game, and needed to fight with Ali-Frazier intensity, and still ended up on the wrong side of another Joe Namath tweet ("If we lose tonight," Joe Willie twittered, "I quit.").
So what if Joe Willie later backed off. When the Jets weren't reestablishing Belichick's defensive genius, missing for quite some time, they were failing to contain the same guy, Brady, they throttled in last year's playoffs.
"You see the difference a great quarterback makes in this league," Ryan said of Brady, not Sanchez.
Rex also complained that the Jets "never got the matchups we wanted," a clear indictment of the losing coaching staff. When it was over, Belichick looked like he'd just won the lottery, and Ryan looked like he'd just lost his dog.
Deep down, Rex knows the score. He's coaching a legitimate playoff team, but not a credible contender.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
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1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo