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Lions 20 Jets 17: A Game of Inches

Detroit Lions v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Sometimes breaking down a football game is easy. During the course of a season, there are plenty of games where a handful of players perform so poorly that they sink their team’s chances of victory.

Other games are more complex to discuss. There are many culprits, some of whom even did good things in the game.

The Jets’ 20-17 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 15 falls into the latter category. Who do you want to blame for the loss? You can pick your narrative.

In many ways the opening half of the first quarter was a microcosm of the loss. The Jets fell into an early 7-0 deficit. All three units contributed to the early failure.

The defense made a goal line stand on Detroit’s first offensive possession. They did, however, let the Lions drive the ball all the way down the field before making the stop.

This left the Jets offense in the shadow of its own goal line for its first snaps of the day. This is not a fortuitous spot for an offense to ever start. It is especially tough for an offense reinserting a struggling young quarterback into the lineup. I am sure the Jets would have preferred to ease Zach Wilson into the game with a easier assignment.

Still, even in a disadvantageous situation, an offense can execute and get a first down or two to make the field position game better. The Jets offense failed and left the punting unit in a constricted area kicking out of the end zone.

Again it was a bad situation. Still, the great punters in this league bail their teams out of bad situations. Braden Mann did not. He hit an awful punt, and the coverage unit did an equally poor job. The punt was returned for a touchdown by Kalif Raymond 47 yards for a score. Everybody deserves some of the blame. So it is when we talk about the rest of the game.

Much attention will likely be paid to Zach Wilson’s return to the lineup. Wilson ended the day going 18 for 35 for 317 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception. Those are very good statistics. I would argue it was Wilson’s best performance of the season. Other than the fourth quarter and overtime of last season’s upset win over the Titans, I cannot remember another game where Zach displayed the high level playmaking ability we saw in this game.

Some credit has to go to Mike LaFleur. He dialed up a number of plays that simplified his read and schemed somebody open for a potential big play. For his part, Wilson put the ball on the money in ways he has frequently failed this season.

At the same time, Wilson struggled as much as he has the rest of the season on conventional pocket passing attempts. His mechanics fell apart as he left several big plays on the field, badly missing open receivers. His pocket presence was as shaky as ever at various key junctures. His performance from the start of the third quarter until halfway through the fourth quarter was some of his worst football of the season. A terrible interception cost the Jets a field goal, and he was lucky to not have two more picks. The Jets ultimately scored only 17 points against one of the league’s least effective defenses and left plenty of big potential passing gains on the field.

If you wanted to find something positive to take from Zach’s performance, you could. If you wanted to come away frustrated, you could do that as well.

So it could also be said for the defense. Arguably the hottest offense in the league only put up 13 points, and 3 of them were the direct result of the Wilson interception. The most significant play of the game, however, came on a critical down late in the fourth quarter. On a fourth down play where the Jets could have essentially clinched the win, the defense completely busted a coverage that turned a short pass into a game-losing 54 yard touchdown.

Can you get on a defense that allowed so few points? Can you absolve the unit for failing so inexplicably in that key spot?

Some pieces of analysis are less complicated. The Jets run game could not get anything going, and the punt return touchdown was the first error in a brutal day for Jets special teams.

There isn’t a whole lot of complexity in how badly the Jets managed the clock on their final drive. They ran out of time and had to settle for a desperation 58 yard field goal attempt even though they didn’t use all of their timeouts and didn’t call one on after least two plays on the final drive where an enormous number of seconds came off the clock.

This loss leaves the Jets at 7-7. By all accounts the team has met or surpassed preseason expectations, recent performance notwithstanding. However, after a 7-4 start, expectations changed. It suddenly feels a bit hollow to be .500. The way you get to 7-7 can matter quite a bit. Detroit has an identical record, but that fanbase is thrilled because that team is getting better each week. Meanwhile, the Jets seem to have peaked early.

Again, assessing the season offers plenty of narratives. I am sure some cynics will point out that five Jets wins have come against backup quarterbacks. While that is true, the Jets unquestionably are an improved football team this year, one that likely would have struggled to win games against backup quarterbacks the last few years. Dismiss the victory in Denver against Brett Rypien all you want. Rypien started a game the Broncos won against the Jets two years ago.

On the same note, the Jets are a handful of plays away in two losses to New England, the defeat against Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, and this game against Detroit from being in the mix for the top record in the conference. Still the team’s 4-5 record in one score games isn’t inordinately unlucky.

If the Jets hadn’t faced those backup quarterbacks, they might be having another terrible season. If they had a few more breaks, they could be elite. Instead they are somewhere in between. 7-7 feels like the right record for this team.

That doesn’t make a loss like this any easier to stomach. And we all wonder how things might have been different had just one play turned out better.