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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Moments after his team's 24-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns, Rex Ryan insisted Sunday afternoon that he never considered it could be his last game as head coach of the New York Jets.
"I'm just trying to get a win," Ryan said. "My thought is, shoot, let's get out here and (do) whatever we can do. And that's it."
But Ryan's words and actions after the Jets' 24-13 win over the Cleveland Browns were those of a man making a pitch to keep his job -- and preparing himself for the possibility that it may not be enough.
"I told you this team's on the climb, it's on the rise," Ryan said after the Jets came back from a 10-0 second quarter deficit. "And I think it was pretty clear, at least to me."
But will it be clear to owner Woody Johnson and first-year general manager John Idzik, the latter of whom inherited Ryan when he joined the Jets in January?
History is not on Ryan's side. He led the Jets to the AFC Championship game in his first two seasons. But 2013 is the third straight season in which the Jets (7-8) will miss the playoffs and finish with a non-winning record.
Fox Sports reported Sunday morning that Ryan told the Jets this week that he expected to be fired after the season finale next Sunday in Miami. Ryan declined Sunday afternoon to discuss what he said to the players, but it was telling that he took a victory lap around MetLife Stadium after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
A pair of ill-advised gadget plays -- an incomplete pass by safety Josh Bush resulted in a failed fake punt and an 11-yard loss by rookie wide receiver Saalim Hakim on an end-around - symbolized the first 23 minutes of the game for the Jets, who were outgained 146-73 in falling behind 10-0.
But the Jets, who had mounted only one comeback from a double-digit deficit this season, scored 10 points in the final 6:47 of the first half to tie the game.
The Jets maintained the momentum in the second half and ended up scoring on four of their final seven possessions -- including a trio of kneel-downs by quarterback Geno Smith in the final two minutes - and outgaining the Browns 359-145 in the final 36:47.
What the Jets said
"Our guys will be out in their Jets gear buying Christmas presents, so look for them around town with Santa Claus." - Jets head coach Rex Ryan, after announcing the Jets were receiving a "Victory Monday," that is, a day off
What the Browns said
"You can't imagine how I feel about that." - Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, on the Browns losing six in a row and nine of their last 10.
What we learned about the Jets
1. The Jets players seem to want Rex Ryan to return next year. It did not seem that way when the Jets fell behind 10-0 in the first 23 minutes -- a stretch that included an underthrown pass by safety Josh Bush off a fake punt and an 11-yard loss by rookie wide receiver Saalim Hakim off an end-around executed during the Wildcat formation. But the Jets outscored the Browns 24-3 the rest of the way and kept alive their hopes of finishing .500.
Will that be enough to save Ryan? History suggests no. Not only is he working under a general manager who inherited him, but 19 of the previous 41 coaches who failed to make the playoffs in three straight seasons were fired at the end of their third season. However, there's no doubting the Jets have played hard and overachieved under Ryan most of this season.
"For us to have seven wins (after) being predicted to be the worst team in the NFL, that says a lot about the character, the talent and the way they rally around Rex," said linebacker Calvin Pace, who is one of four active Jets remaining from Ryan's first season in 2009. "I guarantee you everybody loves playing for Rex. It's a blast to come into work every day with a guy who motivates everybody, who believes in everybody."
Owner Woody Johnson seems consumed with public sentiment, and he may be more reluctant to fire Ryan if he believes it's going to be the unpopular move among fans as well as players.
2. Quarterback Geno Smith can lead the Jets to victory over bad NFL teams. That seems to be the definition of damning with faint praise, but Smith is now 5-3 against teams that will end week 16 with a losing record, which at least indicates he's got game-manager capabilities.
Smith had the second-best game of his career Sunday, when he was 20-of-36 for 214 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a quarterback rating of 91.7. The Jets have won all three games this season in which he threw for at least two touchdowns and have won all three times he's avoided throwing an interception.
Smith also rushed for 48 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown that clinched the game late in the fourth quarter. The Jets are 4-1 when Smith has at least 30 yards rushing.
"He is making progress," veteran tight end Kellen Winslow said. "For a rookie, it just takes time. He has all the tools. It takes time. It takes a little getting beat up (and realizing) 'Oh, snap, this is the NFL now and you progress from that.' That's how it goes for any rookie.
"He's going to be fine and you saw that today."
He may not ever be a franchise quarterback. But if the Jets keep Rex Ryan and continue to build around a dominant defense - no sure thing - then a fine game manager such as Smith can be good enough.
What we learned about the Browns
1. There was no late-game agony for the Browns, who have blown fourth-quarter leads in four of their 11 losses. But in frittering away a 10-point lead in the final 6:47 of the first half and then getting outscored 14-3 in the second half, the Browns proved again they simply don't know how to win. The loss Sunday marked the seventh time the Browns blew a lead in a loss and the fourth time they squandered a double-digit lead.
"We just executed poorly," Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski said "Whether it was a mental mistake, whether it was a lack of focus or concentration or whether it was getting beat in a one-on-one situation."
The Browns have 37 players who have spent three years or less in the NFL, so the easy - and perhaps correct - thing to say is that they will figure out winning football with experience. But the Browns are 77-162 since returning to the NFL in 1999 and remain one of just four teams to never reach the Super Bowl, so it's hard to blame their fans if they're a little tired of hearing about a rosier future.
"Hang in there," Chudzinski said when asked if he had a message for Browns fans. "We'll get it right."
2. The Browns' starting quarterback for 2014 is not on the active roster. Cleveland is 3-0 in games started by Brian Hoyer, who suffered a torn ACL against the Bills on Oct. 3, and are 1-11 in games started by Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden.
Campbell's struggles Sunday magnified just how much the Browns want to rid themselves of Weeden, whom they hoped could be a franchise quarterback when he was selected in the first round of the 2012 draft. Campbell had been mostly competent while filling in for Hoyer and Weeden, at least until Sunday, when he went 18-of-40 for 178 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions while compiling a season-low 37.3 quarterback rating.
He was especially poor in the red zone, where he was 1-for-6 and took a sack as the Browns settled for 10 points despite three first-half trips inside the Jets' 20-yard-line.
In the second half, Campbell was 10-of-18 for 107 yards and both interceptions, each of which Campbell threw inside the Jets' 30-yard line. But coach Rob Chudzinski said after the game he never thought about going to Weeden to give the Browns a spark.
"I just felt like Jason at that point gave us our best chance, as we were playing, and gave us our best chance to win," Chudzinski said.
Come the spring, the Browns will certainly be looking for a quarterback who gives them a better chance.