The New York Jets won a football game Sunday for the first time in 358 days, but they might have suffered a loss that will be felt a lot longer.
With a 23-20 upset of the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, the Jets (1-13) relinquished their front-runner position for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. In a decades-long search for a franchise quarterback, they might have blown their shot at Clemson star Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive top pick.
“Hey, our job is to try to go out and win every week,” embattled coach Adam Gase said, dismissing the narrative that a loss would’ve been more beneficial to the franchise.
By pulling off the most improbable win of the 2020 NFL season, and one of the biggest upsets in team history, the Jets fell behind the Jacksonville Jaguars in the race for No. 1. They have the same record, but the Jaguars clinched the tiebreaker, according to ESPN research. The tiebreaker is based on strength of schedule, and the Jaguars have played a significantly weaker schedule than the Jets.
That didn’t dampen the Jets’ postgame celebration.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” said quarterback Sam Darnold, the player who could be most impacted by the Jets’ draft position.
The Jets snapped a 13-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history, and eliminated the possibility of becoming the third team in NFL history to finish 0-16.
“It’s been too long for us to even remember what a win feels like almost,” a relieved Gase said.
It was a crushing loss to the Rams (9-5), who missed a chance to clinch a playoff berth and fell out of first place in the NFC West. Coach Sean McVay called it a “very humbling” defeat, adding, “This loss will demoralize us only as much as we allow it to. It’s going to be embarrassing, sick to your stomach about it.”
McVay called Gase the other day at 7:15 a.m. ET to compliment his counterpart on his team’s tenacity, in spite of its 0-13 start. It’s unusual for opposing coaches to talk during the run-up to a game, but McVay wanted to share that sentiment with Gase after watching Jets tape.
“I’m sitting there going, ‘I can’t believe he’s at the office already,’ because it’s 4:15 [in Los Angeles],” Gase said. “I was going to answer it, just because I knew he was up and wanted to say something.”
The Jets showed mental toughness as they nearly blew a 20-3 lead, protecting a three-point advantage in the final five minutes with a touchdown-saving tackle by punter Braden Mann, a fourth-down pass breakup by safety Marcus Maye and a game-clinching catch by running back Frank Gore with 2:20 play.
Gore, 37, who lamented a few weeks ago that he didn’t want to end his legendary career with an 0-16 season, was beaming after the game.
“I’ve had tough years and this has been a tough one,” said Gore, the third-leading rusher in NFL history. “One thing I can say: I never went 0-16.”
How stunning was the upset? A week earlier, the Jets suffered the most lopsided loss of the Gase era — 40-3 against the Seattle Seahawks. The Jets went off as 17-point underdogs against the Rams. It tied for the second-largest upset win for them in the Super Bowl era; the only one larger was Super Bowl III in 1969, when the Jets stunned the Baltimore Colts as 18-point underdogs.
This marked the third consecutive season an underdog of 17 points or more has won outright. From 1978 to 2017, there had been only three such upsets, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
For weeks, the Jets’ fan base has been buzzing about the prospect of drafting Lawrence, regarded by talent evaluators as a generational prospect.
“It doesn’t affect us,” Darnold said of the speculation.
Darnold, who has struggled, played his most efficient game of the season. He completed 22 of 31 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown, snapping a streak of five straight games under 200 yards. He had no turnovers and made smart decisions under pressure, throwing the ball away instead of making a negative play.
“There was no panic,” Gase said.
Darnold’s future remains uncertain, as the Jets clinched a top-three pick and still could opt for a quarterback. They have months before they make that decision.
For now, it was about celebrating a rare win. The feeling was so unfamiliar that Gase said he paid more attention to the victory formation than ever before, making sure nothing went wrong.
Darnold ended the game with three kneel-downs.
“The greatest feeling in sports to be able to ice the game out,” he said.
ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.