- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- They gathered around a TV in the assistant coaches' locker room, hoping. GM Mike Tannenbaum clutched LaDainian Tomlinson's shoulders as they watched the final moments of the Washington Redskins' overtime win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"Come on, Graham, buddy, you can do it," Tannenbaum implored, rooting for Redskins kicker Graham Gano, who was warming up for the game-winning field goal.
"Oh, you know him?" Tomlinson asked.
"No," Tannenbaum said, "but right now he's my best friend."
You need friends in this business when you squander opportunities late in the season, as the New York Jets have done -- the latest a 38-34 loss Sunday to the Chicago Bears. The Jets always need friends because they can't take care of their own business. After failing to secure a playoff berth on the field, they had to go to the locker room and watch, cheering for Washington to knock off one of their AFC competitors.
Gano made the field goal, sending the Jets into the playoffs for the second straight year. You could say they made it by a foot, perhaps fitting when you consider the bizarre events of the past week. But, seriously, it was fitting in another sense:
A team known for last-minute and overtime victories needed ultra-overtime to clinch a wild-card berth. The Jets backed in, to be sure, but they're in, offering no apologies. When it comes to the playoff chase, they turn into a Robert Frost poem, always taking the road less traveled.
A year ago, the Jets received the ultimate gift -- Curtis Painter, with a big, red bow. This time, it was Graham from 31 yards on TV. It's always something.
When he saw the football sail through the uprights in Washington, Tomlinson sprinted into the Jets' locker room, yelling, "We're in! We're in!" Tight end Dustin Keller said Tomlinson was acting crazy, like a kid celebrating a birthday. There was a loud roar in the locker room, so loud that Rex Ryan heard it during his news conference.
Ryan was lamenting the atrocious defensive performance when he heard the celebration from the next room, stopping in mid-sentence. Just like that, his mood went from overcast to bright sunshine.
"By the way, I think we're in the playoffs," Ryan cracked. "It ain't the way I wanted it, but I'll take it."
It made for a surreal scene in the locker room. Some players, like guard Brandon Moore, were disgusted by the loss. Others, like Tomlinson, were giddy to be in the postseason. Some didn't know what to feel.
"We just lost a game, so I'm thinking, 'Am I allowed to celebrate?'" Keller said.
"I have no idea what that's supposed to feel like," he said.
Here's the big picture, the rose-colored view: Despite an inordinate number of off-the-field issues, from Darrelle Revis' holdout to TripGate to FootGate, the Jets maintained their focus and completed a back-to-back -- consecutive playoff appearances for only the fifth time in franchise history. They did it with a second-year coach and a second-year quarterback.
But there's the other view: After a fantastic 9-2 start, the Jets have dropped three of their past four games. They blew a possible No. 1 seed and blew a shot at the AFC East title. The most troubling thing is how their once-vaunted defense allowed 45 and 38 points in two of those losses. That's not the kind of late-season performance that inspires confidence.
The Jets (10-5) are a wounded team, at least on one side of the ball. After befuddling Bears quarterback Jay Cutler for the first half, the defense suffered an unimaginable, 21-point meltdown in the third quarter. They allowed three touchdown passes and 117 yards through the air, negating another encouraging performance by Sanchez and the offense.
"It's a huge, huge deal that we have to get fixed," Ryan said of the defensive slide.
So much for building momentum for the postseason.
A road win over the playoff-bound Bears, coupled with last week's win in Pittsburgh, would've been a big confidence booster. Now the best thing the Jets can say is that the early clinching will provide Ryan a chance to rest his banged-up starters -- namely Sanchez, who admitted after the game that his shoulder is "pretty sore."
Ryan didn't hide his intentions, saying he's going to use next week's finale against the Buffalo Bills as a quasi-bye week. He all but said that Sanchez will get the week off. That would be a smart move. At this point, Sanchez needs rest more than reps in a meaningless game.
Forget about all that nonsense about peaking for January. That circus has left town; the Jets need to get refreshed, preparing for a Super Bowl quest that will require three straight wins on the road. If they fall short of their oft-stated goal -- the Super Bowl -- it will leave them wondering what might have been.
At least they didn't have to go into Week 17 still fighting for a playoff spot. They can thank Gano and Tomlinson, the town crier.
"I ran in here, yelling," Tomlinson said. "The mood was down at first, but then guys started to crack smiles and started to laugh and joke around."
And then they found out they'd be stranded in Chicago for the night, victims of the blizzard in the Northeast.
Another twist to a bizarre day.
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