Jets takeaways from Week 17's 28-24 loss to Buccaneers, including best game of Robert Saleh-Zach Wilson era

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Zach Wilson throwing on the run green unis
Zach Wilson throwing on the run green unis

The Jets needed a moment to show everyone that they really are making progress. They needed something to bring hope that the “next year” they’ve been waiting for might soon be here.

This was it.

Forget the final score and that they lost to the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28-24 in heartbreaking fashion. This game Sunday was the best of the Robert Saleh-Zach Wilson era -- and really, one of the best games for the Jets in years.

Wilson looked as good as he had all season long and so did the entire team around him, as the Jets nearly pulled off the shocker of their season. Without most of his top weapons, Wilson completed 19 of 33 passes for 234 yards and a touchdown, and the Jets’ offense under his direction gained 374 yards.

And the Jets’ defense was better than the final numbers will say. They did give up 410 yards and three touchdown passes to Tom Brady, including his 33-yard touchdown to Cyril Grayson just over the outstretched hand of safety Elijah Riley with 15 seconds remaining. But for most of the game they frustrated him with their tight coverage and decent pass rush.

The Jets led 24-10 late in the third quarter before they started to wear down and the Bucs’ offense finally started to click.

Braxton Berrios, of the New York Jets, is shown as he scores the second of two first half touchdowns.. Sunday, January 2, 2022 Jets Vs Bucs
Braxton Berrios, of the New York Jets, is shown as he scores the second of two first half touchdowns.. Sunday, January 2, 2022 Jets Vs Bucs

And still it came down to inches. After the Jets had a red-zone stand with about 7 ½ minutes to go, Wilson and the Jets went on one final drive that ate up most of the clock and nearly put the game away. But they failed on a gutsy-but-ill-conceived fourth-and-2 play from the Tampa Bay 7, which gave Brady one final chance.

Don’t let the result take away from the bigger picture, though. Wilson looked great -- as calm, comfortable and decisive as he’s looked all season. His throws were mostly strong and accurate. The offense looked good. The young secondary was mostly terrific.

And don’t forget, the Jets did it all with a roster absolutely decimated by injuries at COVID-19. They were without their top three receivers (Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, Jamison Crowder), their starting tight end (Tyler Kroft), starting center (Connor McGovern) and one of their top two running backs (Tevin Coleman). Their defense, of course, has been dealing with injuries all season long and were without their best defensive player, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, for this game, too.

They had no business even sticking with the defending Super Bowl champs with that depleted lineups. Not only did they do it, but they almost one.

They should have. They could have. They deserved a better ending. But the performance was still good enough to bring everyone a little hope.

Here are some more takeaways from the almost-win that Jets fans will be talking about all offseason long.

New York Jets Head Coach, Robert Saleh, is shown as his team takes on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sunday, January 2, 2022. Jets Vs Bucs
New York Jets Head Coach, Robert Saleh, is shown as his team takes on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sunday, January 2, 2022. Jets Vs Bucs
  • Way back in the spring, WR Braxton Berrios was consistently one of the stars of the Jets’ practices. He seemed to make a play at every one, especially on throws into the end zone. It turns out, the Jets had a bit of a hidden gem. One week after his highlight-reel, 103-yard kickoff return, Berrios had eight catches for 65 yards and a touchdown and a touchdown run. He’ll be a free agent in March, but the Jets would be crazy to let him go. He’s probably their fourth or fifth receiver next year, but he should have a role in the offense. Obviously he’s a dangerous return man, too.

  • Remember when so many thought Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur looked over matched for the job. No one is saying that anymore. The word most often used with him is “creative.” He’s unleashed a lot of trick plays the last few weeks, and the latest version was the “Philly Special.” Wilson lined up behind the right guard, which cleared the way for a Wildcat direct snap to RB Michael Carter, who flipped it to Berrios on a reverse. Berrios looked like he had the option to throw to Wilson, but the QB couldn’t get open so Berrios ran it in for a one-yard touchdown instead.

  • Saleh’s late-game decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Bucs' 7 while sitting on a 24-20 lead with 2:17 to play was both gutsy and questionable, considering he could have settled for a game-tying field goal. The play call, though, was awful -- a QB sneak by Wilson, needing two full yards against that defensive front. He got none, not surprisingly. If they’re going to go for it there, they’ve got to come up with something better to run than that.

  • The Jets’ secondary was supposed to be the weak link for this team, but they’ve been steadily improving and the young corners were really good against this explosive Bucs team. Rookie Michael Carter II looked particularly good with strong coverage all game and his first career sack. Second-year pro Bryce Hall was more up and down, but he handled dangerous receiver Mike Evans (4 catches, 47 yards, 1 TD). Brady didn’t have a lot of open receivers, particularly deep. Even when Riley misplayed the game-ending touchdown, there wasn’t a lot of room for Brady to sneak the pass in. The tight coverage on the receivers was part of why he relied so much on tight end Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 115 yards).

  • Goodbye, Denzel Mims. If ever there was a game that made it clear this coaching staff doesn’t like last year’s second-round pick, it was this one. The Jets were playing without their top three receivers and Mims was still fifth on the depth chart. Berrios, Keelan Cole, Jeff Smith and D.J. Montgomery all played ahead of Mims. That’s embarrassing and telling. He’s eighth on their depth chart. At this point, it’ll be a shocker if they don’t trade him before the NFL draft, likely for just a late-round pick.

Jan 2, 2022; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) on the field before the game against the New York Jets during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2022; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) on the field before the game against the New York Jets during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
  • Very quietly over the last few weeks, the Jets offensive line has started to play really well and that continued again Sunday against a strong Bucs front. That’s a good sign considering they were without Mekhi Becton, as they have been all season, and then they lost left tackle George Fant to a knee injury in the first half. They were also without McGovern (knee). But Chuma Edoga stepped in at left tackle and Dan Feeney took over at center and the Jets didn’t miss a beat, showing off their depth. It’s a real good sign for what this line will look like next year, with Becton back and with likely at least one more guard or tackle added in free agency or the draft.

  • Cole had another big drop in the first half and finished with just two catches for 35 yards. He’s been a big disappointment this year, considering the Jets thought they had a steal in free agency when they signed him to a one-year, $5.5 million deal. The Jets are probably going to upgrade their receiving corps next season behind Davis and Moore. It’s hard to see them bringing Cole back after a season in which he has just 25 catches for 395 yards with one game to go.

  • Carter, who has been terrific this season, continued his strong play with a 55-yard run on the Jets’ opening drive. Unfortunately he only had two more carries before leaving the game with a concussion. He’s a big part of the Jets’ future, but he’s got some durability questions he’s going to need to answer next year.

  • There have been a lot of weird things on the football field at the Meadowlands in recent years, but it’s hard to think of anything stranger than the weird farewell of Bucs WR Antonio Brown. After something happened on the sidelines, he took off his shoulder pads and his shirt, fired his gloves into the crowd and … left. He crossed the end zone while play was going on, waved the peace sign at the crowd, did some jumping jacks, and took off for the locker room. There’s nothing really to say except let’s hope he gets the help he so obviously needs. Also, shame on the Bucs for enabling him, especially after he got caught with a fake vaccination card. They certainly ignored a lot of red flags.