The Jets knew their season was on a knife's edge hard by the banks of the Cumberland River tonight.
But that didn't help produce the urgency needed or the result desired. Despite playing the kind of game that has become their recent trademark, the Jets couldn't fight all the way back from a touchdown-less first half, a big, big play by Tennessee and five untimely turnovers by QB Mark Sanchez.
The result was a 14-10 victory for the now 5-9 Titans, built on that long, 94-yard TD run by Chris Johnson and a much shorter 13-yarder by QB Jake Locker, plus the Jets' inability to put a second TD on the board.
So with the Titans win comes the Jets loss, which sinks the Green & White to 6-8 on the season and, because there are no scenarios for them to make the AFC playoff grid with eight losses, ends their longshot quest to come back from 4-7 to reach the postseason grid.
"That's obviously a devastating loss. Out of the playoffs, it hurts beyond belief," said an emotional Rex Ryan. "I think the thing that really hurts the most is that we really have no one to blame but ourselves."
"We're pretty much eliminated," added ILB David Harris, who was credited with seven tackles. "We've got to be professionals and keep coming to work. You never give up."
The momentum-shifting play was in fact the Jets' first TD of the game. It came with 3:19 left in the third quarter, after the Jets' punt-block team created enough confusion to force Brett Kern into a mis-hit 30-yard punt from his own 5. Sanchez, protected against the blitz, feathered a third-and-12 pass over LB Tim Shaw to Jeff Cumberland, who took it the rest of the way for a 17-yard score and a 10-7 lead.
The Titans answered immediately with a drive capped by Jake Locker's shotgun-snap "Student Body Left" 13-yard TD run to return the lead to the hosts at 14-10 with 20 seconds left in the third. Even though Tennessee had to be reactive, not proactive, the exchange of TDs broke the slow, stodgy pace of the game on both sides and promised a faster-paced, more nerve-wracking final frame.
The Jets seemed to awaken just in time for what would have been a 92-yard TD drive in the final 5:20. Sanchez kept the Jets scuffling across midfield all the way toward the red zone, helped along by a 15-yard helmet-to-helmet hit on Sanchez by LB Will Witherspoon.
But on first-and-10 from the 23, Sanchez, off balance in the pocket, tried to loft a pass at the goal line to Cumberland. The throw was into triple coverage, and S Michael Griffin came up with his second interception of the game and the home team's fourth of the night.
"I just got to play better," Sanchez said. "That's all I'm worried about is elevating my play, taking care of the football, making some better throws and not hurting the team."
The Jets had one more golden chance to save their season when the Jets stopped the Titans offense inside its 5, then rushed Brett Kern into a 19-yard punt that went out of bounds at the 25 with 47 seconds left.
Then came error No. 5. We could call it the pinball game from hell. On the first play from the 25, center Nick Mangold's shotgun snap came back low but fieldable. Sanchez couldn't pick it clean. Then as he tried to regain possession, RB Bilal Powell kicked the ball away from No. 6 — and toward LB Zach Brown, who cradled the ball at his 32 to effectively end the game and the Jets' bid to climb up the standings and into that unlikely fifth or sixth seed.
"We knew it was a huge game for us and to turn it over five times," Ryan said. "You get the ball on the 25-yard line with a chance to win it at the end and then to turn it over again. Obviously it's extremely disappointing to say the least."
The Jets opened their second half with Sanchez's second interception of the night, which also was Jason McCourty's second of the night. McCourty, who joined Arizona S Kerry Rhodes as opponents with two picks in the same game, returned it 28 yards to the Jets 46.
But the defense stiffened again and the Titans had to punt. Over the last three games, the Jets had turned the ball over eight times but the D had held the ensuing drives to just two opponent field goals. They dodged another bullet on this one, but Sanchez and the offense could move only 35 yards before punting again.
Another Close-to-the-Vest First Half
The Titans moved down the field with the game's opening drive into the Jets red zone — briefly, as it turned out, getting one snap from the 18. That play was a toss from Jake Locker to Chris Johnson that didn't fool Calvin Pace, who took CJ2K down for a 10-yard loss on third down.
On top of that, kicker Rob Bironas came out late for the kick, getting it off with 3 seconds left on the play clock. A split-second later, Muhammad Wilkerson turned in his next big play, getting his paw on the kick for the Jets' first FG block since Kris Jenkins vs. Arizona in 2008 and their first road FG block since Shane Burton at Buffalo in 2000.
The Jets responded with their own drive into the red zone as Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards for a reception for the first time since the 2010 AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh. 23, 2011, plus three penalties on the Titans, to advance all the way to the Titans 4.
On third-and-goal Sanchez appeared to find Cumberland for a diving 4-yard TD, but a booth challenge brought ref Walt Coleman to the replay hood, and when he stepped out he reversed the catch into an incompletion because the ball hit the ground as Cumberland rolled through the catch. Nick Folk came on for the 22-yard field goal that gave the Jets the early 3-0 lead.
Tennessee's next march moved toward midfield as Locker eluded defenders intent on keeping him hemmed in for 15 yards. But the D threw up a nice stand there, with CB Kyle Wilson nicely tackling WR Nate Washington for a 5-yard catch on third-and-8.
Robert Malone's punt "pinned" the Titans at their 5. We say "pinned" because in two plays Johnson pinned a 94-yard touchdown burst on the Jets defense. It was the second-longest TD run by a Jets opponent, trailing Garrison Hearst's 96-yarder in overtime in the 1998 opener at San Francisco and replacing rookie Sid Blanks' 91-yarder for the Houston Oilers (ancestors of the Tennessee Titans, of course) back in 1964.
"We knew coming in he was their best weapon offensively," Harris said. "We let a long run go for a touchdown. It turned out that was the key play in the game. Blame me. I should've made the tackle. I was unblocked. I should've made the play. Put it on me."
Tim Tebow came on next and ran his first full series as a Jets QB. It totaled seven snaps in all, six plays plus a penalty, and gained 22 yards but petered out as the drive went on until Tebow had to scramble and throw away a third-and-16 pass.
"That was when I wanted to put him in, to put him in the third series and that's exactly what we did," Ryan said.
The defense didn't err in bringing down Johnson on the next series, getting its first 3-and-out of the night. On the Jets' next play, Sanchez returned behind center, rolled right and threw his first interception in two games. It was another McCourty who did the Jets dirty, this time CB Jason McCourty stepping in front of Jeremy Kerley for the pick, his third INT of the season. With 3:56 left in the half, the home team was in business again at its 48.
Just as quickly they had their second consecutive 3-and-out, with Pace getting his third sack of the year by touching Locker as he scrambled out of bounds for a 2-yard loss. But the Jets returned the favor with a 3-and-out and punt. And then the Titans did the same, with LaRon Landry breaking up Locker's long third-down throw for first-year WR Michael Preston.
With 49 seconds left in the half and the Jets getting the ball to start the second half, fans surely figured Sanchez would safely hand off a few times and take it to the locker room. Not so. One incompletion, then a 15-yard burst by Bilal Powell. But a sack was followed by a kneeldown and the Jets
Sanchez completed 13 of 28 passes for 131 yards, one TD, four INTs, three sacks and a 32.6 passer rating. ... Shonn Greene finished with 68 yards on 13 carries. ... Cumberland led the Jets with four catches for 53 yards. ... Johnson had 122 yards on 21 carries.
Sanchez's third-and-12 TD throw to Cumberland was the Jets' first conversion of third-and-11-plus since Game 4 vs. San Francisco. ... Malone's first punt of the night, magically hit the Titans 2 and bounced back to be downed at the 5 for a 53-yard gross and net punt. It marked the 14th consecutive game Malone has hit a 50-yard punt, extending his streak that's the Jets' best since at least 1991.
The Titans continued as the NFL's only team not to have scored a home offensive first-quarter touchdown. ... The Jets went without a first-half touchdown for their fourth straight game. But in their previous two games, they beat Arizona and Jacksonville.