NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A fumble here, a penalty — or, a handful of them — there and some brutal mistakes all around.
That has become the overwhelmingly frustrating theme for the slumping New York Jets.
"Correct the little things," coach Todd Bowles said Monday of his message to his team. "We fight and do the right things for three quarters. Then, for about one quarter in about five minutes, we let the game get out of hand."
The Jets led the Carolina Panthers 20-18 early in the fourth quarter when a series of, well, unfortunate events sent New York's faint playoff hopes into near-extinction. Three of their past five losses have included blown leads in the final quarter.
"We're continuing to mess up on things we're addressing, and it's starting to catch up with us," defensive lineman Leonard Williams said.
"I would say it's a discipline thing because on film, we weren't getting physically beat. There wasn't a lack of effort."
With 12:05 left, Luke Kuechly scooped up a fumble by Josh McCown and returned it 34 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. McCown, a 38-year-old veteran, acknowledged that he made a fatal mistake when he tried to throw the ball away and at the feet of fullback Lawrence Thomas rather than take a sack.
Instead, the ball slipped out of his hand as he was hit by Wes Horton.
"Obviously, I look back and I regret that," McCown said. "Trust me, next time I want to be better at that and I don't want that to happen. It's frustrating, and it makes me sick, but at the end of the day I also know it's part of the game and mistakes are going to happen."
After the offense couldn't do anything on its next possession, special teams became the next culprit. Kaelin Clay fielded Lachlan Edwards' punt, put a video game-like spin on the coverage and zipped into the end zone 60 yards for a touchdown.
And, just like that, it was Carolina 32, New York 20 with 9:54 remaining.
McCown and the offense bounced back to make it 32-27 on Jermaine Kearse's 3-yard touchdown catch with 5:32 left. So, the Jets were still in this one — until another inexcusable mistake.
With the Panthers facing third-and-11 from the Jets 48, Cam Newton threw a deep incomplete pass that was intended for Devin Funchess. He got popped in the chest by defensive tackle Mike Pennel, who was called for roughing the passer. That moved the ball to the 34, and Carolina ran three more plays — and milked the clock — to set up Graham Gano's 45-yard field goal with 21 seconds left.
A perhaps even more egregious error came late in the third quarter when Jordan Jenkins jumped offside on fourth-and-2 from the Jets 32 on an incompletion. The penalty prolonged the drive and led to Jonathan Stewart's 2-yard touchdown run a few minutes later.
"There were about two or three plays where we had gone over things countless times that we should have known better, certain guys should have known better," Bowles said. "And that's a lack of concentration from a discipline standpoint and that has to get better."
The Jets are the third-most penalized team in the NFL with 88, behind only Miami (90) and Seattle (109).
"Self-inflicted wounds, basically," Williams said. "And it comes down to discipline."
There was also, of course, the touchdown that wasn't, a 1-yard grab by Austin Seferian-Jenkins that appeared to be a score early in the fourth quarter but was overturned by video review when it was ruled the tight end didn't maintain control of the ball throughout the play. It was reminiscent of Seferian-Jenkins' overturned touchdown against New England in Week 6.
"It's hard to see him bobble the ball again," Bowles said. "It's the second time that we've been involved in one of these things. They had a better view than I did. I couldn't see it on the video replay. I couldn't see it on tape, but they made the call, they looked at it. So we have to hang onto the football going to the ground — if that was the case."
Bowles was then asked if he might send the video to the NFL offices to get an explanation.
"It's not going to change the call," he said, "so the explanation right now is just going in one ear and out the other for me."
That play, however, was part of a head-scratching sequence in which the Jets chose to throw the ball three times from the 1. On third down, McCown missed a wide-open Matt Forte, and New York had to settle for a field goal.
It all added up to the Jets' fifth loss in six games. Now, their feel-good story from early this season has taken a nightmarish turn that they hope doesn't get worse.
"Obviously, as far as playoffs go, the stakes are a lot higher now," McCown said. "There is no margin for error and we're going to have to play at a high level all the way out."
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