In April the schedule came out and it showed the Jets opening and closing the 2012 season with the Bills. Considering that the Western New Yorkers had beefed up their defense with the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson and had retained the services of Stevie Johnson, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller on offense and that the Bills buzz was becoming audible over the ensuing months, this was looking like one tough Buffalo sandwich to digest for the Green & White.
On Sept. 9, Mark Sanchez went unsacked by Super Mario or anyone else, threw three touchdown passes, two to rookie WR Stephen Hill, and the Jets opened a 41-7 lead en route to their 48-28 opening-day rout. So much for the Bills. Bring on the rest of the schedule.
On Oct. 21, all four AFC East teams went into their games with 3-3 records. So much for running away with a first-round bye. It appeared this division was going to be as difficult and close, and maybe as ugly, as it had been in about 10 years.
On Dec. 2, the Jets and Bills hit the 12th month with extremely disappointing 4-7 records. So much for challenging New England for division supremacy. But also with promising games in Weeks 13-16, it appeared as if the two old AFL rivals might just be able to get on a hot streak and go into their Dec. 30 rematch at Ralph Wilson Stadium with 8-7 records and with a win-and-you're-in-lose-and-you-snooze scenario.
"I'm Excited to Be Playing Again"
Which brings us to today. That sandwich game that looked so tasty four months ago now looks like something Homer Simpson just found behind the couch. The stretch runs never developed for either team. The Jets have lost their last two to be eliminated from the postseason before Week 17 for the first time since 2007. The Bills have lost three in a row and have extended their playoffs-less drought to 13 seasons.
What to play for today in "the Ralph"...
For the Jets, much is the same as it was last week, when they went into San Diego off the loss at Tennessee that dashed their last hopes for a wild-card berth. There is meaning to this game, just not the most meaning possible.
Yet there are shadings to the limited meaningfulness of this game for each player. For Sanchez, who went from that September high to the despair of turning over his starting job temporarily against the Cardinals, then more permanently against the Chargers, then getting the job back after Greg McElroy's concussion came to light at midweek, it's hard to determine exactly what a win or a loss would do for him heading into the offseason.
"I don't know what it would've been like if I wasn't going to play. I'll tell you what it'll be like after we play," he said Thursday at his locker. "But I'm excited to be playing again and I'll try to make the most of it."
Head coach Rex Ryan said there was no doubt once McElroy was ruled out that Sanchez would return behind center and Tim Tebow would still be waiting on the sideline. One reason was for that bright, shining 48-28 win 16 weeks earlier. Sanchez wasn't sure how much difference that would make.
"It's two totally different teams, it's been months apart," he said. "And we talked about it a little bit yesterday, that in this last game, it could be exactly the way they've been all year, show us what they showed us in the first game, show us what they've showed us in the last few games, or just be totally different. Who knows what's going on and what their feelings are like going into this game. But at the end of the day, we just have to react to what we see and be sharp, have a good plan — I think we do — and just get ready to go and end on a positive note."
Wanting In, Whatever the Future Holds
That positive note has been hard to find for tight end Dustin Keller, who lost virtually the entire first five games to a hamstring strain and now has sat the past three games with a high-grade ankle sprain. He didn't practice this past week and was listed as doubtful for today's game. Before he found out if he'd be active or not, he, too, talked about what it would mean for him to play today, then head into an offseason without a new contract in place.
"I want to be out there for my teammates," Keller said. "I know we're just playing for pride. There's no telling what next year's going to be. I don't know if I'm going to be here or if I'm going to be somewhere else. With that said, I'd definitely like to play in this last game, whether it's my last game as a Jet or it's just the last game till next year's first game as a Jet. I'd like to play either way."
(Keller found out Saturday that he won't be playing as he, WR Chaz Schilens (knee) and CB Ellis Lankster (concussion) were downgraded to out for the game and didn't accompany the team to Buffalo.)
Perhaps the defensive side has another perspective on this game. The unit has been ascendant for a while. It has risen toward that top-five overall yardage finish that Ryan foresaw back in the summer, to No. 7 this week. The pass defense is second in the NFL. The third-down D has been on fire, the pass rush finally coming on. The Jets' only two first-wave Pro Bowl players are CB Antonio Cromartie and S LaRon Landry.
Yet much is also the same.
"It's always important to finish it off," said NT Sione Po'uha, who's feeling as good as he's been since way back at training camp when his low-back problems first flared up. "Even though some things may be unattainable at this point, I think the most important thing is your integrity as a professional, to go out there and finish this off and not be defined by the circumstances but to be defined by who we are and how we're going to go out there and perform."
One More Time for Coach Westy
And that goes multiple for the special teams players, who will be sending coordinator Mike Westhoff into football retirement after this game.
"It's time for me to go," Westhoff waxed poetic this past week. "Sometimes you have a shelf life. I think I've been here 12 years — that's a long time. Whether I was going to retire or not, which I'm going to, obviously. I think sometimes change is a good thing. I've loved being a Jet and being associated with the Jets. The blue-collar part appeals to me. I love the recognition I get.
"It's been a great, great run. I've been very fortunate with it. I still do share the responsibility and disappointments, but for the most part, wow, I've really had a good time here. I've really enjoyed it and we've done a lot of good things."
And that gives guys like Eric Smith even more to play for.
"Mike's a great coach and great at what he does," Smitty said. "It'd be great if we could send him out on a good note, score, make a couple plays. It'd be great, for as long as he's been here coaching, and as much as he's done for us, it'd be nice to do something for him."
And that maybe is the secret to the players playing this game and the fans watching and the historians taking notes. It's been said before but let's say it one more time before baggie day in the Jets locker room on Monday. It's important how you finish. A loss won't secure a fourth-place finish in the AFC East (the Bills have clinched the cellar spot regardless of today's outcome), but sure, it would get the Jets a slightly higher first-round draft choice in April and a potentially slightly easier schedule in 2013.
But that's not nearly enough to put a damper on Po'uha's zest for one more set of downs in the game of life against the Bills today. "It's going to be a lot of fun, man," said Big Bo. "It's going to be exciting to be out there, give our final shot for the year. What other way than to go out there and put your best on the field?"