Playoffs are for Closers
By Jane McManus Feature Columnist
December 20th, 2009
Falcons RB Jerious Norwood runs over Jets S Kerry Rhodes during Atlanta's 10-7 win.
Falcons RB Jerious Norwood runs over Jets S Kerry Rhodes during Atlanta's 10-7 win.
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - It has played out the same way all season, and Jets safety Jim Leonhard didn’t mince words after a 10-7 loss to Atlanta. The Jets defense has done the kind of heavy lifting first-year coach Rex Ryan expects of them, until it comes to the last drive of the game.

“All you can say is just frustration,” Leonhard said. “We don’t feel like we’re this team that loses and doesn’t execute in big situations, that doesn’t seem like us, but it’s happened over and over.”

Five of the Jets’ seven losses have come on their opponents’ last drive. Miami won that way twice, Jacksonville and Buffalo, and now Atlanta - a team with no playoff ambitions who flew into New Jersey before an early winter blizzard - can add its name to the list.

This is how it happened; Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hit an open Tony Gonzalez in the end zone with 1:38 left in the game to give Atlanta the win. Those hardy fans who had dug cars out of a foot of snow to make the 1 p.m. start, who arrived to scrape the snow from their red seats, were left in the literal cold.

“On that fourth-down play, we knew the exact play that was coming,” Ryan said. “We just never defended it. We never executed it and, what a surprise, Gonzalez gets it in the end zone.”

The Jets playoff hopes went from tough to much more difficult. The Jets have to beat the Colts and Bengals, and need other several other AFC teams to lose, a picture that will be clearer after the late Sunday games.

But the Jets wouldn’t be in this spot if the defense had preserved the 7-3 lead. So why does the D keep making the same mistake? It’s a question the players on the defense asked themselves after the Falcons hit the red zone on their last drive.

“They shouldn’t be down there if we’re the top-ranked defense and we’re as good as we think we are,” Leonhard said. “It should never have happened.”

Forget for a moment the three interceptions, six penalties and three blown field goals. The highly-rated defense has been impressive, cornerback Darrelle Revis should be headed for the Pro Bowl, but the Jets defense gives up long scoring drives late in the fourth quarter.

“And we failed too many times in that situation,” Leonhard said.

Safety Kerry Rhodes was covering the Falcons’ tight end had held Gonzalez to two catches before the 6-yard touchdown pass. Ryan switched to a zone defense as the Falcons went for it on fourth down trailing 7-3, and Gonzalez was open for the catch.

“It’s like a microcosm for our year,” Rhodes said. “We win and lose games we shouldn’t lose and that game we shouldn’t have lost.”

Maybe the Jets defense shouldn’t be blamed for anything this year. Their rookie quarterback is assured of a few picks a game and special teams has been lacking. But the moment Mark Sanchez was chosen to start, the defense has known it would carry more than half of the burden for this team.

“Our defense has to man up and take that responsibility,” Ryan said. They’ve been doing it for a lot of the year.”

The message has gotten through, as well as the knowledge that the Jets have yet to live up to Ryan’s expectations. Even Revis agreed with Ryan.

“If we want to be the great defense that we want to be and we always preach about,” Revis said, “we have to get out there and make plays at the end of the game.”