With 10.48 left on the clock in the 4th quarter, New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick lined up in the shotgun on second and ten from the Buffalo Bills’ 14-yard line.
Although the Bills held a slim two-point lead at this point, the Jets had marched efficiently from their own 28-yard line to orchestrate this scoring position. Fitzpatrick had even drawn a roughing the passer flag for a heavy helmet to helmet collision earlier in the drive.
Now the journeyman quarterback, who had improbably led the Jets from a lowly 4-12 finish in 2014 to the brink of postseason football, took the snap. He fired deep left for Eric Decker, who had been a favourite target of Fitzpatrick’s all day, only to see his pass picked off by Bills’ defensive back McKelvin.
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Buffalo would proceed to eat up the clock and tack on another three points with a field goal, leaving the Jets with 3.49 on the clock and 80 yards to go to grab a game-winning and season-saving drive.
It was not to be, as Fitzpatrick’s second interception killed the comeback off and the Pittsburgh Steelers leapfrogged the hapless Jets into the final wildcard spot in the AFC. Still, there are plenty of positives for the Jets to draw upon heading into the offseason and in preparation for next year.
Firstly, their record of 10-6 is the best win-loss ratio the franchise has enjoyed since 2010.
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It is also the first time the team has cracked the .500 mark since that year. The play of wide receiver Brandon Marshall has been a pleasant surprise as the 10-year veteran found a new lease of life in New York. His 1,502 yards was only six yards shy of his single-season best whilst his 14 touchdowns are the most that he has ever snagged in one season.
Even more surprising was the play of Fitzpatrick. Prior to this season, not many commentators would have given much thought to the 11-year quarterback who had floated between six different teams throughout his career.
Before landing in New York, Fitzpatrick had only played two full seasons as an NFL starter, both at Buffalo. That was three years ago, and although his numbers back then were passable (306/505 passes completed for 3,400 yards and 24-16 touchdown-interception ratio in 2012, 353/568 for 3,832 and 24-23 in 2011), Fitzpatrick started nine games in 2013 at Tennessee and only played 12 regular season games for Houston in 2014. It seemed like his career was beginning to peter out.
In New York, Fitzpatrick worked well with Marshall and Decker, throwing for 3,905 yards, 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, the best stat line of his career. This passing game was augmented by the resurgent form of running back Chris Ivory.
His first 1,000-yard season helped balance the Jets offense, in turn, buoyed on the play of a rampant defensive front, ranked fourth overall.
Whether the Jets success could be replicated next year is an interesting point of debate. On the one hand, if the players listed in this article can preserve this season’s form going forward then perhaps it is possible.
Marshall is getting towards the twilight if his career as an NFL wideout and there is always the possibility that this year was simply a flash in the pan, an abnormality that will be dealt with through the adjustments of various defensive coordinators around the league.
Some will argue that the Jets schedule was weak. They played playoff teams four times (New England twice, Houston and Washington), going 2-2 in those games. Throughout the season, they played seven matches against teams with an end-of-season record of .500 or above, going 3-4.
Within their division, they were 3-3, sweeping the hapless Dolphins and losing both matchups with the Bills. So in games with the bigger teams, they were quite average. Wins against sub-.500 opponents kept their season afloat, particularly through a five-game win streak from week 12 through to week 16.
Should the Jets harbour real aspirations of challenging for playoffs next year again, they need to make the next step and begin beating the most powerful franchises with more regularity.