The Jets' postseason hopes were alive before heading to Carolina and they still exist today, although they're on life support. But what we needed against the Panthers was a mistake-free, tightly played, momentum-building effort in the Panthers' den.
And what we got were several momentum swings, the last two going against us, as we suffered a tough 30-20 loss to the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium this afternoon.
"I think we made some critical errors in the game, that goes without saying," head coach Rex Ryan said after the game, "but really all three phases made a critical error and that really contributed in this loss."
On offense, it was a Geno Smith pick-six, his fifth of the season. On defense, it was a 72-yard catch-and-run to DeAngelo Williams. And on special teams, it was a Ryan Quigley blocked punt recovered inside the 20.
Thus instead of their first two-game winning streak of the season, the Jets fall to 6-8 with their fourth loss in five weeks since the bye. With wins over Cleveland and at Miami the next two weeks, they would get to only 8-8 and would need much help from many teams to squeak into the AFC playoff grid.
The shame of it was that we had an opportunity to go into Charlotte and come away with a stunning triumph.
The defense was unable to stop Cam Newton and the Carolina offense and the Jets were losing their grip on the game ... right until a strange go-for-it call by coach Ron Rivera that failed, and the first pro touchdown run by rookie fullback Sheldon Richardson — yes, fullback Sheldon Richardson.
Rivera committed his unforced error midway through the third quarter when, despite the Jets' short-yardage defensive excellence and Graham Gano's field goal excellence, he chose to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the Jets 14. Newton couldn't find a receiver and Quinton Coples pulled him down as he threw for an incompletion.
With new life, Smith guided the offense all the way to our first touchdown of the day. Jeff Cumberland had the big gainer, a 35-yard reception to the Carolina 28.
And Richardson crowned the drive with his first NFL rushing plays. Lining up as the fullback on first-and-goal at the 2, he carried the first time to the 1-foot line. Then running the exact same play, Sheldon crashed into the middle of the line again and, after a long look, got the call from Terry McAulay's officiating crew — touchdown!
But the next big play was a crusher for the Green & White. Quigley had a punt blocked by Jason Williams, coming clean up the middle much the way Antonio Allen did last week against the Raiders.
"Obviously they've got one of the premier returners in the game back there in Ted Ginn," Rex said, "explosive guy, so we're trying to put some speed down there so we went with three flyers. When you do that, obviously you cover up the center and the guy just had a good rush on us."
The Panthers took over at the Jets 14. Four plays later Mike Tolbert strode into the end zone, and our deficit was back to 10 at 23-13 with 11:05 to play.
Then the biggest dagger of all came when the Jets committed another mistake and their first turnover on Smith's interception, returned by CB Captain Munnerlyn 41 yards for a touchdown. And it made the score 30-13.
"It was a very very tight window and I tried to pick up that third down at a crucial point in the game," Smith said, "and it ultimately bit me and our team in the butt by me doing so. I just have to do a better job at managing the situations, knowing that I don't have to force that ball, I can check it down and just live to fight another day. We were right in the thick of that game and one or two scores changed it for us."
Geno ended the day completing 15 of 28 passes for 167 yards, 1 TD and 1 critical INT to go along with 44 yards rushing.
Munnerlyn did a Santonio Holmes Jet plane impersonation in the end zone, part of a game-long verbal and physical battle between Holmes and the Panthers DBs for Tone's midweek comments. When the Captain fell to the end zone turf, he was flagged for excessive celebration.
For the Jets, there would be no celebrating. With 3:50 to go Smith and the offense moved 72 yards to an 8-yard TD pass to Cumberland to make it 30-20. But they never got the ball back after that.
First Half Turned in a Blink
We won the opening toss, chose to defer and started out on defense. A decent decision, with Muhammad Wilkerson knifing past two blockers to drop Newton for a 3-yard loss on a third-down QB draw. Then on our first third-down QB keeper, Smith went for 10 yards and a first down. But both teams wound up punting.
Then the Panthers struck first, with Newton's 36-yard laser to WR Brandon LaFell setting up Graham Gano's 35-yard field goal 10:21 into the game.
On the drive, Wilkerson went off the field slowly with a right arm injury and missed the first two plays of the next series before returning with the arm heavily taped.
But before Wilk returned, Smith engineered a 44-yard drive and Nick Folk evened the score at 3-3 on the final play of the opening period with a 54-yard field goal. It was Folk's 11th 50-yarder and his second-longest as a Jet.
Then Carolina moved right back into the red zone for a second consecutive drive. Again the defense held, this time on first-and-goal from the 2, forcing the home team to settle for another Gano field goal, this one from 22, with 6:46 left in the half.
On the one hand, it was a positive that our D continued to keep Cam and Co. out of the end zone. On the other hand, the drive lasted 8:14, the second eight-minutes-plus opponent march in the last three weeks, or since Miami went 9:10 on its opening drive two games ago.
But the offense kept the defense off the field with a nine-play field goal drive of its own to retie things at 6. Key plays were back-to-back big runs against the No. 1 run defense, 35 yards by Chris Ivory — his fifth 30-yarder this season — and 15 more by Bilal Powell.
Folk put through his 33-yarder, making him 30-for-31 this season and 17 for his last 19 on the road
The Panthers' next strike was considerably quicker — 20 seconds in all from the time Newton spun around, faking a screen one way and then finding DeAngelo Williams the other. Williams sped down the right sideline, outrunning David Harris, Ed Reed, and then Dee Milliner for the 72-yard catch-and-run that put the hosts ahead, 13-6, with 3:29 left in the half.
Too much time, especially after a 3-and-out. The Panthers moved right back, not quite into the red zone but still close enough for Gano's third field goal of the half from 40 yards out. In nearly the blink of an eye, a close game turned into a 16-6 Panthers lead that felt larger.