The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By DEN­NIS WASZAK Jr. AP Pro Foot­ball Writer

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 play­off­bound 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: What if? 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.


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 dou­bledigit 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.


New York Jets line­backer Tarell Basham (93) cel­e­brates an in­ter­cep­tion with team­mates in the first half of an NFL foot­ball game against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, Sun­day, Dec. 22, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J.


New York Jets quar­ter­back Sam Darnold (14) looks to pass in front of Pitts­burgh Steel­ers line­backer Ola Adeniyi (92) in the sec­ond half of an NFL foot­ball game, Sun­day, Dec. 22, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J.


New York Jets quar­ter­back Sam Darnold (14) looks to pass in the sec­ond half of an NFL foot­ball game against the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, Sun­day, Dec. 22, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J.

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