The contender wins the fourth quarter and finds a way to win.
The pretender chokes in the fourth quarter and finds a way to lose.
The playoffs were a pipe dream after all, and the Jets, 35-27 losers, made sure that dream all but went up in smoke Sunday.
They handed the damn game to the Panthers and came up young and small against a Big Boy team that knows how to play big in the big moments.
Even amid the mediocrity that swirls around the AFC, the 4-7 Jets no longer deserve to be in any playoff conversation.
“You win games, you’re a playoff contender. When you lose games, you’re not,” an agitated Todd Bowles said. “Right now, we’re not a playoff contender. We gotta go back to the drawing board.”
The Little Jet Engine That Could couldn’t.
Josh McCown is the pilot of The Little Jet Engine That Couldn’t, and for longer than anyone could have imagined, he has stuck the landing.
But as much and as hard as he fights, he is not built to carry a young team that does all the dumb things that cause you to lose.
McCown had thrown two long touchdown passes to Robby Anderson and had a 20-18 lead even after Austin Seferian-Jenkins dropped a pair of touchdown passes that forced the Jets to settle for a pair of field goals.
Then the veteran QB made a killer rookie mistake.
A sack-fumble that never should have been a fumble that Luke Kuechly returned for the game-changing touchdown.
“[Lawrence Thomas] was right there to my right, and I was just trying to dirt it to him,” McCown said. “And [Wes Horton] got to me before I could get it out. Hindsight, I wish I woulda tucked it and just ate it. I felt like I could still get it, out and it just happened to slip out of my hand.
“That’s a frustrating play ’cause it turned the game.”
Bowles was asked if McCown had explained to him what he was thinking.
“There’s nothing to explain,” Bowles said. “You can’t fumble the football.”
It was merely the defining blooper on a day when the Jets gave us an entire reel of them:
McCown went three-and-out on the next series, and Kaelin Clay’s 60-yard punt return made it Panthers 32, Jets 20. Asked what went wrong, Bowles said: “Obviously the fact that nobody tackled him, everything went wrong.”
Seferian-Jenkins was wide open when he dropped what should have been a 13-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter.
“I was single-handedly the culprit for why we didn’t score today in the red zone,” Seferian-Jenkins said.
There was Jamal Adams poking a finger in Superman’s cape after Cam Newton’s 1-yard touchdown run. He should have been flagged for immaturity and was lucky he wasn’t.
There was an overly excited Anderson campaigning for the Pro Bowl after his 54-yard touchdown catch that made it Jets 17, Panthers 12.
“If that’s true, that’s not smart football at all,” Bowles said. “We don’t want selfish players on this team doing selfish things.”
There was Jordan Jenkins jumping offside with Newton facing fourth-and-2 at the Jets’ 32. Moments later, it was Panthers 18, Jets 17.
“We know every time between third-and 5 or fourth-and-5 or less, they’re going to hard count,” Bowles said. “Not smart football by Jordan.”
It was Jets 20, Panthers 18 because Seferian-Jenkins could not maintain control of the ball on his diving try.
“I thought it was a touchdown when I had originally made that play,” he said. “They didn’t think it was a touchdown. I agree with their call. It is what they call.”
It was Jets 20, Panthers 18 because offensive coordinator John Morton called three pass plays first-and-goal at the 1.
“They piled in the box,” McCown said. “In any game, you can walk away and look at what you would have or should have done and things you could have done better.”
It was Panthers 32, Jets 27 when Mike Pennel was flagged for unnecessary roughness after Newton threw incomplete on third-and-11 just before the two-minute warning with the Jets out of timeouts.
“That wasn’t smart football at all,” Bowles said.
Detect a theme here?
“We shoulda won the game,” McCown said. “We gotta figure out a way not to let those things happen.”
Pretenders do not.
“It just sucks, bro,” McCown said.