If the new Jets wanted to roast that chestnut for good, all they had to do Sunday was to beat Buffalo at home. But they failed miserably at that task, from early red-zone shortcomings to late play-calling mystery, and thus fell to the Bills, 14-9. And as afternoon turned to evening and Seattle pulled out a 25-22 victory over San Diego on Rian Lindell's 54-yard walk-off field goal, the Jets were poised again, as last year, to sputter away an almost certain playoff berth.
``We played like a 2-12 team,'' first-year coach Herman Edwards lamented matter-of-factly after the Jets, who entered the game with a 9-5 record, suffered one of this wacky NFL season's major upsets at the hands of the Bills, 2-12 coming in. ``It's disappointing, but it's still a fact of life. If you don't get the job done, you have to move on to the next week, and the next week we play the Raiders. You can feel sorry for yourself if you want tonight, but after tonight no one really cares.''
Edwards' Jets still control their destiny, but it could have been so much easier. On Sunday they have to win at Oakland or hope the Seahawks lose to out-of-the-postseason-loop Kansas City. They could still secure that AFC No. 2 seed if they beat the Raiders and get help from their AFC East brethren. But a Jets loss and a Seattle win bounces the Jets from the playoffs just as surely as they were spit out a year ago on Christmas Eve after losing their third straight, at Baltimore.
``Sometimes,'' offensive coordinator Paul Hackett said, ``the best laid plans go a little sideways.''
How did the Jets get sidetracked against the Bills? There weren't many solid theories. ``I think we were a little too relaxed this week in practice,'' said defensive end John Abraham, who played through his sore groin. ``It kind of showed out there.''
But defensive tackle Steve Martin said for him, three days of no-pads preparation for Buffalo weren't a bad thing. ``I like the relaxed approach - I don't want to be tense,'' Martin said. ``I don't think we treated this game different than any other game. But when we came out, we just hit the quicksand.''
And running back Curtis Martin, who retook the NFL rushing lead from the Chiefs' Priest Holmes, 1,455 yards to 1,438, on his 115-yard afternoon, wasn't even going to get into the explain game. ``I know we have the talent. I know we have the cohesiveness,'' Martin said. ``I know we have everything that it takes to get it done. Yet when you don't get it done, you wonder why. Hopefully we can figure that out.''
Edwards said he told his team after the game not to point fingers at this ``team loss,'' and it's true there was enough blame to go around, for players and coaches. On offense, start at the end. Vinny Testaverde capped his roller-coaster game in the cold Meadowlands wind by completing one pass he shouldn't have, then throwing away one last pass that may or may not have counted had he completed it. The first came on second-and-10 at the Bills 24 with 13 seconds to play and no timeouts left. It was a checkdown to option No. 3, a dumpoff to Martin over the middle.
``All I'm going to say is that the play came in from the sideline,'' Testaverde said. ``We executed it the best we could. I'm not going to stand here and say `What if.' Then it looks like I should be calling the plays and whatever play comes in is wrong. You can make your own decisions based on what happened.'' Hackett, who called the play, initially said Testaverde ``did exactly what he was supposed to do. It was a miscalculation on my part. We didn't have enough time.''
But a few minutes later it sounded as if he was doing a 180 when he said, ``Thirteen seconds gives you two plays - everybody knows that.'' Yet by that reasoning, Testaverde should have thrown a better second pass either as or after time expired. Referee Ed Hochuli's crew didn't specify if the play counted, since the hurried throw sailed over wideout Kevin Swayne's head and out of the end zone to seal the upset loss. Before that, Testaverde threw two bad interceptions - the first in the first half after Curtis Martin's season-long 47-yard run to the Buffalo 34, the second when he tried to screen to Martin with 1:46 to play, only to have old Gang Green nemesis Phil Hansen rise up in the backfield, bat the ball to himself, and return it into Jets territory.
And all the Jets were complicit in their ongoing red zone follies - they had to settle for three John Hall field goals after driving to the Bills 11, 10, and 15. Defensively, the bad run defense of the first six weeks reared its ugly head again as Buffalo backup back Shawn Bryson led a 192-yard rushing effort.
``I can't believe we played like that,'' Steve Martin said. Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell also may have called a less-than-favorable coverage on the Bills' second touchdown, a 22-yard pass from Alex Van Pelt to Peerless Price for a 14-6 lead in the third quarter. Price emerged from a three-receiver ``bunch'' formation and corner Ray Mickens, playing man coverage, got picked off in the traffic trying to defend Price.
It all left a bad taste in Jets mouths, one that turned ashy when the Seattle result came in. And while Buffalo first-year coach Gregg Williams was praising his team for coming back ``historically the way the Bills have come back,'' Curtis Martin would not give in to the ghosts that the Jets have tired of hearing about but can't put exorcise. ``This is reality right now,'' Martin said, more grimly than he should have had to. ``This year has to be different than last year. I believe it will.''