Either the Jets couldn't get J.J. Watt's hands down on Monday night or Mark Sanchez uncannily couldn't miss them. But at least the ever-vigilant Quarterback Police in the stands couldn't arrest a Rex Ryan defense on another charge of impersonating its former top-five-in-the-NFL self.
It didn't start well. On the 34-yard first-drive touchdown catch, Owen Daniels was as open as offensive coordinator Tony Sparano remains open to criticism. And in two plays from the Jets 34, Arian Foster was in the end zone even faster than Tim Tebow can get yanked after taking the Jets to the opposition's 3-yard line.
But with Antonio Cromartie blanketing Andre Johnson, with the run defense finally stopping two Houston drives in the second half, the Texans settled for two field goals after the intermission. For the Jets it was too little, too late, not enough to overcome just 69 New York rushing yards, a fourth consecutive sub-50 percent completion rate by Sanchez, and soap-in-the-shower dexterity by his and Tebow's receivers.
Nevertheless, in the end Gang Green had a chance that only believers just as devout as Tebow expected the Jets would.
Thus, they looked like they still think of themselves as a team able to compete against the best. With the Jets' top offensive and defensive player each gone for the season, this confidence certainly beat the alternative, even if it wasn't enough to beat the 5-0 Texans.
The 23-17 loss didn't save the Jets from a 2-3 record going into Sunday's game against the Colts nor from endless criticism or quarterback controversy. But despite the media's relentless attempts to tell the Jets otherwise, they still think they are pretty good and will eventually prove it. After losing Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis, being humiliated 34-0 and being labeled as quitters by the 49ers' Carlos Rogers, that's much of the battle.
"Fifty-seven yards rushing on 23 attempts in the second half is more like it, what we expect," said Ryan Wednesday. "I think we will get better. The commitment on the practice field, in the classroom, gives me that kind of confidence."
Problem is, at 2-3 nobody wants to hear about confidence, about progress, even about the quarterback's best weapon and the team's superstar cornerback being out for the year. Or about Sanchez's favorite target, the sorely missed Dustin Keller, coming back Sunday, which was the subject of just one question yesterday for the quarterback, the rest being about his job status.
No one wants to accept that San Francisco and Houston might meet in this season's Super Bowl, that 8-8 would be a good recovery for the Jets and 9-7 should win Ryan Coach of the Year. Maybe later the fans will get real, after reality sets in and Ryan perhaps makes a quarterback switch that will prove how wise had been his reluctance to make one all along
For now, Sparano can spare Ryan, Sanchez and Tebow their grillings by actually using Tebow as was intended — a dynamic short-dosage alternative — not the Trojan horse he is now for seven isolated plays a game. An effective Wildcat would not make Sanchez nervous. It would actually free him to complete enough passes to demonstrate that his skin truly is as thick as he smilingly continues to insist it is. He might even again look like the quarterback that has won a not-too-shabby four playoff games and engineered 11 fourth-quarter comebacks and overtime victories in three-plus seasons.
To calm the hysteria, meanwhile, Pro Bowl-caliber players Keller and Nick Mangold have to stay healthy and productive, Cromartie has to continue to impersonate Revis, and somebody, anybody, has to step up from the depth chart and surprise. A schedule that has Buffalo, Miami, Tennessee and Jacksonville remaining has to turn out to be friendly as currently advertised. And of course, the Jets have to play every week with the heart they did against the Texans, not that it earned them a point of extra credit. They tried too hard to end up wasting a great opportunity.
Offered a softball consolation lob for a fight at least well fought, Ryan said after the game that he is paid to win. Of course, he was right. His team played only well enough to find ways to lose, which is what bad teams do repeatedly to break their own hearts.
So glass half-filled, glass half-empty, glass to Jet Nation's lips to forget 42 years since the franchise's only Super Bowl appearance, any improvement they showed Monday night will only prove meaningful if they take it into a winnable game against the Colts and actually win it.