"I hate to lose getting in [the playoffs]," said Jets head coach Herman Edwards, who has led his team to the playoffs in three of his four seasons at the helm. "But we'll take it. Now, all we have to do is get in the playoffs and win."
This was certainly not the kind of game the Jets wanted as a springboard to the postseason. Gang Green, 10-6, began the 2004 football campaign at 5-0 but lost six of their final 11 games. They enter the playoffs with a number of concerns – including a secondary that was burned by St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger for 450 passing yards and three touchdowns; confusion on the sidelines and in the huddle that resulted in their burning two timeouts early in the second half; and a sub-par pass-blocking performance by a usually reliable offensive line, which relinquished six sacks of quarterback Chad Pennington.
And yes, the Pennington-led offense continued to struggle. One week after scoring only seven points in their loss to the New England Patriots at the Meadowlands, the Jets' offense crossed the goal line just once on Pennington's 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Chris Baker in the second quarter that gave Gang Green a 10-7 lead. The Jets' other scores came on three Doug Brien field goals, a 38-yard interception return by linebacker Jonathan Vilma and Jerricho Cotchery's 94-yard kickoff return.
Pennington (21 of 36 for 181 yards and one touchdown) was erratic, and his performance on Sunday will, undoubtedly, add fuel to the critics' concerns about his ability to come up big in crucial situations. The Jets' quarterback failed to drive his team to a game-winning touchdown in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter despite having a first-and-goal at the St. Louis 9-yard line with the Rams leading 29-26. Pennington misfired on three consecutive passes, including one that was deflected at the line of scrimmage and another that almost became a game-clinching interception but was dropped at the goal line by Rams safety Adam Archuleta.
"We have to score more points, obviously," said Pennington, who spread the ball around to nine different receivers. "If you're going to be a championship team, you have to put the ball in the end zone as an offense. Right now, we're great between the 20s and the last two games we haven't done a very good job inside the red zone, kicking field goals and not scoring enough touchdowns. It's not the talent level, it's not the play calling – it's the execution."
Rescued by what appeared to be divine providence via Archuleta's drop, the Jets settled for Brien's 27-yard field goal with three seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 29-29 and set up the overtime period. Brien gave the Jets a chance to win in OT, but his 53-yard attempt was wide right.
After stopping the Rams on their second possession in OT, the Jets advanced to the St. Louis 40-yard line on Curtis Martin's 19-yard run. But after a 5-yard pass from Pennington to Santana Moss, the drive stalled. On third down and four at the Rams' 34 Pennington overthrew Cotchery near the right sideline, setting up Brien's missed field goal attempt.
The Rams' winning drive was keyed by Bulger's 22-yard completion to running back Steven Jackson in the flat to the Jets' 14-yard line. One play later, Wilkins kicked the decisive field goal.
After falling behind 21-10 in the third quarter following Bulger's 44-yard touchdown strike to Torry Holt on the Rams' first play of their drive, Gang Green scored 16 unanswered points to take a 26-21 lead. Cotchery got things rolling with his 94-yard TD return of the kickoff following Holt's score and Brien followed with a 33-yard field goal to bring the Jets within one point. Cotchery benefited from a crunching block delivered by B.J. Askew on kicker Wilkins to spring him for the touchdown.
"The first return I had [before the touchdown] the kicker tackled me," Cotchery, a rookie from North Carolina State, explained. "You never want the kicker to tackle you."
Defensive end Shaun Ellis – who recorded the Jets' three sacks of Bulger -- then deflected the pass that Vilma intercepted and returned 38 yards for a touchdown and a 26-21 Gang Green lead. The Jets opted for a two-point conversion try, but Pennington's pass to tight end Anthony Becht was incomplete.
The Rams regained the lead, 29-26, on a 19-yard TD strike to Holt and Jackson's conversion run. Throughout the afternoon, the Jets secondary had difficulty dealing with the assortment of crossing routes, slants and drags that the Rams' offense favors.
Martin, meanwhile, rushed for 153 yards on 28 carries and moved into fourth place on the NFL's career rushing yardage list, surpassing Eric Dickerson and Jerome Bettis. Martin has run for 13,366 career yards.
"I don't think we're going to have a problem with confidence," Martin said of Gang Green's mindset entering next week's game at San Diego. "I think our problem is in just playing the way we're capable. These last few games I don't think we've stepped up and played the way we're capable of playing. We're showing glimpses of it, but a glimpse isn't good enough in the playoffs."
"The feeling would have been a lot better had we won," Ellis added. "Obviously, now our mood is kind of in the middle so we just have to put this game behind us and get ready for next week."
The Jets opened the scoring on Brien's 47-yard field goal in the first quarter, but the Rams jumped to a 7-3 lead in the second quarter in blitzkrieg fashion. On first down, Bulger connected for 34 yards with Kevin Curtis, found Jackson for 20 more yards and then hit Isaac Bruce with a 26-yard TD pass – an 80-yard drive in just three plays.
Gang Green roared back on the ensuing drive, with Pennington completing passes of 17 and 11 yards to WR Justin McCareins and 10 yards to Cotchery to set up Baker's touchdown. McCareins led Gang Green's receivers with six catches for 62 yards.
After taking the kickoff following Baker's TD, the Rams again found plenty of wide open spaces in the Jets secondary – particularly on Bulger's 33-yard pass to Shaun McDonald, who displayed brilliant open-field running on the play – and marched to the 10-yard line. But rookie safety Erik Coleman ended the threat, intercepting a pass intended for McDonald at the Jets' 1-yard line with 1:39 remaining in the first half.
Leading 14-10 at halftime, St. Louis threatened to turn the game into a rout by scoring on their first possession of the third quarter on Jackson's 20-yard touchdown run. The score was set up by a costly 35-yard pass interference call on cornerback David Barrett who was covering the speedy and dangerous Holt.
Vilma doesn't think the down note to the regular season will affect the Jets' performance in the playoffs.
"It's a different mindset now that we're in the playoffs," Vilma said. "We're not even thinking about the [regular] season anymore. The accomplishment was to get to the playoffs or the goal was to get to the playoffs and now we have to win. We have four games to win to get to the Super Bowl."