NEW YORK (AP) — Sam Darnold and the New York Jets are closing out a strange and frustrating season with guarded optimism.
They've won five of their last seven and have a chance to finish a game under .500 at 7-9 if they can beat the playoff-bound Bills in Buffalo on Sunday. Not bad for a team that was 1-7 and in the running for the No. 1 overall draft pick. But it also calls for one big question:
There are actually several questions to which that can be attached: What if:
—The Jets hadn't blown a fourth-quarter lead against Buffalo in the season opener? —Darnold hadn't gotten mononucleosis and missed three games?
— The offensive line hadn't taken so long to jell?
— Adam Gase had made better decisions, particularly in games against previously winless Miami and Cincinnati?
— Eighteen players weren't on injured reserve, including several starters?
It's the type of coulda, shoulda, woulda mind game every team other than the Super Bowl champion deals with every season. But considering where the Jets were just a few weeks ago, it's easy for some players to see hope for next year.
“We're just continuing to move forward," Darnold said. “Like I keep saying, we have great guys in the locker room, and we're moving in the right direction."
Le'Veon Bell said the same after a 16-10 win over Pittsburgh, echoing what he had been explaining all season — that progress takes time and patience.
“We still have a lot to build on," Bell said. “Beating a playoff team obviously gives us a confidence boost and keeps us moving. We have another playoff team next week, so we want to try to get that win, too.”
The maddening fact for the Jets and their fans is that they could very easily be in position for a playoff spot, if not for, well, “what if?" The wins over Pittsburgh and Dallas and even Oakland showed they could beat teams with talent. Those losses to the Dolphins and Bengals also proved New York isn't nearly good enough to even think about the playoffs.
Some might also point to the quality of the opponents in the other wins during this closing stretch — Washington, the Giants and Miami — and the blowout loss at Baltimore and want to pump the brakes on the late-season optimism.
“It doesn’t really have a huge effect going into the following year, at least in my opinion," defensive end Henry Anderson said, “but heading into the offseason, you can have a little bit of momentum and positivity in the locker room."
The pass rush. One of the weaknesses of the defense all season was a strength Sunday with the Jets getting four, including one each by Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi, Neville Hewitt and Kyle Phillips. It marked the fourth time this season New York had at least four sacks, giving the Jets 34 on the season and tying them with Baltimore for 22nd in the NFL.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Gase took the blame for the Jets' only turnover Sunday when T.J. Watt had a strip-sack on Darnold, with the coach saying he should've helped his quarterback more.
“I hate the call that I had," Gase said. “I hate the personnel grouping that I had. I put us in a bad spot. He was waiting on a route, which is 100% on me. I wish I would’ve stayed with a different personnel grouping, which would’ve helped him in that situation get the ball out quicker. It was just a bad call by me that forced him to hold onto the ball."
Marcus Maye. He gets a bit overshadowed by Pro Bowl teammate Jamal Adams, but the third-year safety is solid when he stays healthy — something he has been able to do for the first time in his NFL career. Maye had a terrific game against Pittsburgh. He intercepted Devlin Hodges' pass into the end zone in the second quarter, and then made the victory-sealing play in the fourth quarter when he knocked away Hodges' deep pass to James Washington to prevent the Steelers from getting in position for a potential winning score.
“It was probably one of my top plays, for sure," Maye said.
Bless Austin. The rookie cornerback had been playing well while starting the last six games after being activated from injured reserve following a knee injury that cut short his final season at Rutgers. But he struggled mightily against the Steelers and gave up a 29-yard touchdown to Diontae Johnson that tied it at 10 just before halftime. Austin was benched for the second half in favor of Maurice Canady.
G Alex Lewis injured an ankle against Pittsburgh and was limping through the locker room after the game. His status for the game at Buffalo is uncertain. ... OL Tom Compton (calf) and WR Demaryius Thomas (hamstring/knee) sat out against the Steelers and will evaluated through the week.
35 — That's the number of touchdown passes Darnold has in his first two seasons — just two shy of Joe Namath's franchise record for a player's first two years.
The Jets have a chance to avoid some dubious franchise history. A win at Buffalo would prevent a fourth straight season of double-digit loss totals, which would be a team record. A seventh victory would also mark just the third time the team finished 7-9 (1983 and '84); New York has gone 6-10 four times, most recently in 2012 under Rex Ryan.