The New York Jets 2011
Credit: Illustration by Roberto Parada

Tannenbaum had pointed out to me that in recent years in the NFL, anywhere from half to three-quarters of the games had been decided by one score. And sheathed right there in that cold, blunt statistic was the murmuring anxiety of every team's predicament: The NFL had achieved such a level of parity that a form of competitive entropy existed. In any given game, either team could win. Tannenbaum, and the coaches, were in command of what they could not control; and so it was their job to be responsible for the irresponsibility of others. When Cromartie fled north as his man went south and west for a huge play, it was ultimately on them. Nobody on the Jets could cover the hulking New England end Rob Gronkowski, and that redounded to them as well. There were several other people in the box besides Tannenbaum and me, and at halftime, a couple of them shook their heads and quietly seemed to doubt that the team could win games like this with Sanchez.

The Jets defense played well for a while in the second half, but gradually they tired and the score became 23-9. When the offense scored to make it close, the Patriots then took it "84 yards right down our throat," as Tannenbaum said. After Sanchez threw a denouement interception that was returned for six more points, to make the final score 37-16, Tannenbaum, thinking about defensive rosters, asked, "How can they be out there with 37 points with the players we have and we have 16 points and the players they have? Can anybody explain this?"

The morning after any loss, the facility was a desolate place. The wide hallways were like downtown streets in a Rust Belt city, the loss pervading in such a strong way that I half-expected to confront fallen trees, broken windows, overturned garbage cans, wrack-strewn puddles. Football people often talked of big losses feeling like deaths, and the requisite periods of mourning had to follow. The losses were excruciating because they always seemed to come as a surprise. The game had been successfully played and replayed so many times on paper before the spectacular high of kickoff that the disappointing realness was a steep dive. "You can remember every loss" is what Rex Ryan, perhaps the most optimistic man I have ever known, told me. "I can tell you what happened. I can't do that with wins. Look at all the time you lost with your children. You never get it back. You have to win, or it's not worth it."

The way they moved past the great pain was by seeking a formal understanding. All around the building, they gathered in groups to watch the film, to ask themselves if Sanchez could learn to read the coverages more astutely, to ask if he could get through his progressions faster. Figuring into all this was the knowledge that there was a difference between moving on and forgetting.

In a late-Monday-afternoon team meeting, Ryan said he couldn't lie to the Jets. They probably wouldn't win their division. There was much else to play for, he said, and then he placed a chip of wood on their shoulders and knocked it off. Had they heard what happened after the game? Walking off the field, Belichick had turned to his son and said, "Thirty-seven points on the best defense in football, suck my dick." In his meeting-room seat, Revis was horrified. "I think that's a jerk," he said to me later. "Maybe some people think he's a good, collected guy off the field, but then why say such things? It's degrading. Suck my what? Say it to my face. That's not great character."

The fact remained that the Jets had lost, so what could Revis do except look to the next opponent, another difficult game. They'd play against Denver and Tim Tebow, the former college phenomenon who was now a portent of NFL things to come, a starting quarterback who won games by running. To Pettine, the Broncos represented about as abrupt a stylistic shift from the Patriots as he could imagine. He compared moving from Brady to Tebow to transitioning from a Ferrari to a truck.

Part of the challenge was scheduling. NFL teams hate playing Sunday-night games. Football men are up-in-the-morning people, and here you had to wait all day, and then, even if you were the home team, you didn't get to bed before two. If you were on the road, it was a missed night of sleep. Thursday-night games were loathed even more than Sunday-night ones. There was insufficient time for physical recovery from the beatings of the previous game and insufficient planning time for the next one. To play on Thursday night after playing Sunday night, with, moreover, the second game on the road, and at altitude, was tearing out the sutures before the wound was healed.

Given the brief interval at the facility between games, not quite three days because of the long flight to Colorado, triage would be in order. Opposing Tebow required extra rehearsal, meaning there would be no two-minute-drill practice for the defense, and that would prove costly.

Professional football players prepare so obsessively for each game that they often don't know the names of the players on a future opponent's team until the week before the game. As one of the Jets put it about an opposing player, "He's just a number. Who gives a fuck who they are as long as we do what we're supposed to do?" Because Tebow had been, until recently, a reserve NFL player famous for his college career and his religious good works, he was a football specter to most Jets.

Greg McElroy, Sanchez's backup, had opposed Tebow in college. Talking on Monday afternoon, he recalled the Alabama defensive game plan against Florida. The Alabama coaches didn't think Tebow read defenses well, McElroy said, so they showed Tebow complex looks and created a pass rush that emphasized containment rather than their usual high-pressure dashes toward the quarterback. That was because Tebow's most devastating skill was his ability to circumvent blitzers, creating drive-bys, pass rushers skidding past as he went thundering downfield.

Although this was Tuesday, the players' day off, it was a short week, so they had a full day of classroom work and practice. At the morning defensive meeting, Pettine further introduced Tebow to a roomful of yawning men clutching coffee cups and spit bottles for dip. Tebow, Pettine said, was streaky, unpredictable, and a winner. As a passer, he threw three in the dirt and then, the coordinator said, he threw "a laser beam on the money." When he ran, he broke tackles, was deceptively fast. The idea was to force him to make quick decisions. "He can make you miss," Pettine warned. "Bit of a Houdini."

Everyone seemed still exhausted from the Patriots game as they headed out to practice. It was a cool New Jersey fall day with a high slate-blue sky and soft breezes, yet somehow it seemed overcast, with so many people walking around dog-faced and hurt. Revis, his knee sore and braced, was glum. It was at times like this that Ryan shone. During his first season with the Jets, the team had at one point lost six out of seven games. The Jets players expected retribution. Instead, one afternoon Ryan promenaded through the locker room wearing only a black vest. Here he was everywhere, telling jokes, relating anecdotes to lighten the mood, bucking people up. When Plaxico Burress, the receiver, made like a tollbooth gate, raising his long arm improbably high to snag a pass, everyone yelled, "Whooooaaah!" Last week at this time it had seemed reasonable to talk about the Super Bowl. One loss had thrown all into doubt.

After practice, Revis and Cromartie watched film of Tebow, observing with incredulity the length of time it took him to wind up and release his passes and the frequent inaccuracy of those throws. "I don't understand it, man!" Cromartie said. On the screen, balls were spraying everywhere. "That's crazy."

The Jets planned to run and expected the Broncos to do the same. Runs didn't stop the clock the way incomplete passes did, leading Sanchez to say on Wednesday morning in the quarterbacks meeting, "Men, this game's gonna take, like, 20 minutes." For the rest of the meeting, the quarterback continued to employ stock Schottyisms. Everyone was addressed as "men," and many things were prefaced with "the ole," which was, in fact, a Rexism appropriated by Schotty. Schotty, in turn, was referring to Sanchez as Coach. Looking at me, Schotty said, "Nick, we're dealing with maturity issues this side of the room!" It was the only time all year he voiced aloud something I was sure often ran through his mind.

In the Wednesday team meeting, Ryan told the players, "Be comfortable on the plane. No suits unless that's you!" Most chose to fly in sweatsuits, some in sweatsuits of Baskin-Robbins colors. To his defense, Pettine stressed that in a short week, nobody knew what the other team would allocate time to prepare for and that all football teams felt vulnerable when they believed they were underprepared. It would be good to worry the Broncos in that way early. "Give them conflicting looks," Pettine said. "Move around. Make them think." In Colorado that evening, at the quarterbacks meeting, the players discussed Tebow's propensity to sail balls toward the stands and nose-cone them into the dirt. Like Cro, they'd never seen anything like it in an NFL starter. Sanchez, wearing a gray fur hat, was looking exhausted, and Schotty treated him with particular solicitude, telling him, "You're doing a really good job with a lot of stuff." The coordinator urged Sanchez, "Say uncle! Protect the ball and move on with your life." It was not a game in which to try anything rash, Schotty said. "Just get points. They're at a premium because I don't think they score on our defense."