Updated 10:42 p.m. ET
'Twas two days before Christmas and the Jets were trying to find something under their tree at the last home game of their playoffs-less 2012 season.
There was the promise at MetLife Stadium this afternoon of seeing Greg McElroy make his first start as a professional QB. And despite San Diego's quick punt-return touchdown by Micheal Spurlock, McElroy's back-to-back drives to Shonn Greene TD runs put some tinsel on their tree.
But Philip Rivers, starting his 111th regular-season game, came off the early deck with two 30-yard third-quarter touchdown passes, and McElroy couldn't overcome the recent turnover troubles shown by the starter he replaced, Mark Sanchez with two fourth-quarter giveaways, not to mention the 11 sacks delivered not by Santa Claus but by DE Kendall Reyes and San Diego's relentless pass rush.
The result was a Green & White loss with a familiar feel, by 27-17 to the Chargers, as the Jets fell further this year, to 6-9 and thus securing a losing record for the first time under head coach Rex Ryan with only next week's season finale to go, on the road against the Bills.
"Obviously, I'm very, very disappointed," said McElroy, sacked as many times as any QB in a game in franchise history. "This team's goal was to finish 8-8 and win the last two games. We're disappointed that we're going to come up short of that goal, but there's still another week. ... Just look at it, learn from it, rip off the rearview mirror, go forward and get focused on Buffalo."
"That was great on their part and ridiculous on ours," Ryan said of the sack total as he had Sanchez and Tim Tebow also active for this game but didn't play them. "Offensively, you're not beating anybody when you play like that. It's just hard to put into words. You get sacked 11 times, it's extremely frustrating. I expected a lot better, but that never happened."
Ryan also announced after the game that McElroy will start again against the Bills: "I'd like to give him a chance and see what happens. I love his competitiveness. We have to protect a hell of a lot better than we did today."
Fall from Ahead in the Final 30
The hosts had built a 14-10 lead on those two first-quarter TDs but then fell behind on the opening series of the second half, when the Chargers retook the lead at 17-14 as Rivers directed an eight-play, 81-yard drive to his 37-yard scoring toss to WR Denario Alexander, whom Antonio Cromartie lost around the 5-yard line for one of his few coverage miscues this season.
McElroy continued to protect the ball but he was getting swamped by the San Diego rush. He went down for the seventh time late in the third quarter. That was followed by another nice Spurlock punt return, this one 21 yards, and the visitors from the West were off and flying to their third TD, a Rivers-to-Antonio Gates 34-yard catch-and-run past Eric Smith on a crossing pattern to make it 24-14.
"You don't pay attention to the numbers," McElroy said. "We just have to do a better job of getting on the same page, of anticipating things and of getting the ball out. When the plays are there to be made, you have to make them. You can't miss throws. I missed too many throws today, didn't have my feet set on a couple of throws, which led me to be a little inaccurate."
"This was not our day," T D'Brickashaw Ferguson said of the Jets' pass protection. "We didn't play and execute in the manner that we're capable of, but it's our job to make sure that doesn't happen."
Then Mac turned over the ball for the first time, with S Corey Lynch returning the interception to the Jets 19. The Green & White penchant for limiting the bleeding after turnovers continued as the Chargers could only get Nick Novak's second field goal, making it 27-14 with 14:07 to play.
McElroy ended an 0-for-6 scoring-drive drought with a seven-play, 38-yard mini-march to Nick Folk's 40-yard field goal to make it 27-17 with 11:08 to go.
The Jets defense got the ball back, but not until almost two minutes came off the clock following a Kyle Wilson third-down hold that allowed the visitors to keep the ball. Then McElroy began leading another promising drive to perhaps some more points — until he dropped back and, as he motioned to throw, had his pocket picked by LB Shaun Phillips, who fell on the loose ball at the Jets 44 with 4:40 to play.
At that point it became clear the Jets would not be mounting their fifth fourth-quarter comeback of 13 or more points for the win. It became clear not even 8-8 was going to be in the cards or under the tree this season.
"I'm always going to keep searching because I'm trying to win. Whatever it takes, that's what I'm here to do," Ryan said. "It's been a bad season, there's no question about that, but I'm going to keep competing. I want to win. I came here to win a championship. Obviously, you don't make the playoffs, you're not going to win a championship this year, but we'll see what happens. I know one thing, I'm always going to keep believing, I'm going to keep working and I'm going to keep trying to search for answers."
Multiple TDs in the First Half
The game couldn't have opened much worse for the Jets as McElroy generated no offense for a 3-and-out on his first series as an NFL starting QB, then Robert Malone's first punt from his own end zone traveled 53 yards but was turned around for 63 yards by Micheal Spurlock for a punt-return TD.
It was the first punt-return score by an opponent since 2003, when Phillip Buchanon went 78 yards at Oakland. And it was the first PR-TD by an opponent in a Jets home game since '01, when Terrence Wilkins also went 78 yards for the Colts in the '01 season opener.
But as quickly as the final Jets home game of the season took a turn for the worse, it began an upward trend for the home side. McElroy hit Shonn Greene for a 30-yard screen pass, the longest reception by a Jets RB this season. Then out came the Wildcat, not with Tebow awaiting the shotgun snap but Jeremy Kerley. JK loaded up and fired for Clyde Gates deep downfield. "I was thinking, 'Please get down there fast,' " said Kerley, who worked the Wildcat in practice during the week. The ball was underthrown but Gates was clear enough to make the grab at the Chargers 11 for a 42-yard completion. That pass made Kerley 2-for-2 for 83 yards as a passer in his short pro career.
Shortly after, McElroy scrambled to the 1-inch line, Ryan gambled and lost on a replay challenge that G-Mac might've stretched over the goal line, but then Shonn Greene powered off the left side of the line for a 1-yard score, his seventh TD of the year, and the Jets had tied the score 5:40 into the game.
That series went seven plays and 83 yards. One series later, after a 20-yard Kerley punt return, McElroy and the offense went seven plays and 58 yards to Greene 1-yard TD run No. 2 with 4:13 left in the opening frame. The TD was set up by a 22-yard pass interference call on CB Quentin Jammer against Braylon Edwards in the end zone.
That gave the Jets 14 points in the first quarter for the first time since 2009, Game 7 at Oakland, and for the first time at home since earlier in '09, Game 3 vs. Tennessee.
San Diego opened the second quarter with a promising drive that entered the red zone on Rivers' 18-yard slant hookup with Denario Alexander against Antonio Cromartie. But the visitors immediately shifted into reverse with a pair of holding penalties. Then Novak, the ex-Jets camp kicker, had to come on for a 46-yard field goal, which he hit — only to have it nullified by too many Chargers on the field. After a timeout to consider their options, coach Norv Turner sent Novak back out for a 51-yarder, which he also converted, trimming the Jets' lead to 14-10 with 8½ minutes left in the first half.
The rest of the half was an exchange of punts. The Jets almost erred badly, calling a timeout with 21 seconds left to set up a third-and-12 swing pass from McElroy to Lex Hilliard that was first ruled a back pass that Hilliard fumbled and recovered at his 32. But ref Peter Morelli reviewed the replay and changed the call to a forward pass and incompletion. Then the Chargers tried to run one play with 11 seconds left, but Muhammad Wilkerson, on a hot streak, ripped through the line and rejected Rivers pass for his fourth PD in the last nine games. Finally the teams hit the lockers with the Jets in command at halftime for the first time in five games at 14-6.
McElroy completed 14 of 24 for 185 yards but lost 71 yards on the 11 sacks, with Reyes coming up with 3.5 of them and Phillips with 2.5. Mac also had the two turnovers and finished with a 65.5 rating. ... The only other Jet to be sacked 11 times in a game in franchise history was replacement QB David Norrie against Dallas in 1987. The last time the NFL had at least 11 sacks in a game, the Eagles' Donovan McNabb was dropped 12 times by the Giants on Sept. 30, 2007, in the Meadowlands,
For the fifth straight game the Jets didn't have a positive turnover margin, falling to minus-13 for the season. For the fourth straight game they didn't force a fumble and didn't recover a fumble. ... Turnover silver lining? The Jets have allowed just three field goals after their last 13 giveaways.
LB David Harris led all tacklers in the game with 10 stops, eight of them solos. ... Late in the first half McElroy hit TE Hayden Smith on a third-and-9 for 16 yards for the Australian rugby and basketball player's first reception as a professional footballer.
The Jets and Chargers players wore S.H.E.S. decals on their helmets and the Jets asked for a pregame moment of silence for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14.