Sam Darnold’s best game is done in as Jets defense crumbles late

If the Jets were a baseball team, they’d be shopping for a closer.

Gang Green fell apart in the fourth quarter yet again Saturday in a 29-22 loss to the Texans. The Jets’ defense was unable to close out a game again, with Deshaun Watson finding DeAndre Hopkins for a 14-yard touchdown pass with 2:15 left to play to give Houston the lead for good.

The Jets fell to 4-10 and have now lost 10 games in three straight seasons under coach Todd Bowles, who is almost certainly in his final days with the franchise.

It was the second time in three weeks they lost a game late after a killer penalty. Two weeks ago in Tennessee, it was cornerback Trumaine Johnson’s facemask call that helped the Titans win. On Saturday, it was the other cornerback, Morris Claiborne, whose holding call on Hopkins on a third down gave Houston life.

Asked if he thought he held Hopkins, Claiborne said, “Not at all.”

“This is how I feed my family,” Claiborne said. “Those types of calls, when you don’t get them right, it makes it hard for me to do that.”

The loss ruined the best game rookie quarterback Sam Darnold has played this season. Darnold showed poise, made plays with his feet and threw a few beautiful passes in the loss. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran six times for 35 yards.

The Jets went toe-to-toe with the AFC South leaders, who are now 10-4, but fell short.

It looked like Darnold was going to lead the Jets to their second straight comeback win, building off his heroics in Buffalo. He led a 15-play, 73-yard drive in the fourth quarter that ended with Elijah McGuire being pushed into the end zone by the offensive line for a 2-yard touchdown and a 22-19 lead — the Jets’ first of the day — with five minutes left in the game. On the drive, Darnold converted two third downs with runs and another with a pass to Chris Herndon, and a fourth down with a pass to Robby Anderson.

All the Jets needed from there was a stop by their defense, which had played well in the second half after spotting the Texans an early 16-3 lead.

The Texans got the ball at their own 25 with 5:00 left on the clock. Watson began the drive with a 20-yard strike to Hopkins. The Jets then got the Texans to third-and-4, and Watson’s pass sailed over Hopkins head out of bounds. But the referee flagged Claiborne for holding, keeping the drive alive. Watson took advantage and found Hopkins for the 14-yard touchdown four plays later. Hopkins made a terrific catch on the play despite tight coverage from Claiborne to cap the seven-play drive.

“The penalty is the one that got them all the way down the field,” Bowles said. “That was the big thing. We had them on third down. That was a third-down play and that got them a first down. Then, their guy made a great catch.”

Watson finished the game 22-of-28 for 294 yards and two touchdowns with four rushes for 26 yards. Hopkins had 10 catches for 170 yards and two touchdowns.

This was the third time the Jets have blown a fourth-quarter lead this season. They also squandered a lead at Cleveland early in the season and Tennessee two weeks ago. Failing to finish games has been a recurring theme over the past two seasons.

“I feel like all of us have that killer instinct,” Claiborne said. “I don’t think nobody in here is lacking that killer instinct. Throughout the course of a game, it’s just that one or two plays that teams are getting the upper hand and beating us. It’s up to us to figure it out what it is and try to fix it. With these last couple of games left, I know one thing, we’re not going lay down, we’re not going to give anybody anything. It’s going to be a fight.”

The Hopkins touchdown gave the Texans a 26-22 lead with 2:15 to play, but the Jets still had a chance. J.J. Watt registered his second sack of the day on Darnold on third-and-7 just before the two-minute warning. On fourth-and-15, Darnold had Anderson open, but threw the ball high and it bounced off Anderson’s fingertips.

“It was just a little bit bad judgment by me,” Anderson said. “I came a little bit too much under and it hit right off my fingertips. But I’ve got to make those plays.”

see also

Jets report card: Defense and kicking drag down solid offense

Grades from Saturday’s 29-22 Jets loss to the Texans: Offense…

The Texans pushed the lead to 29-22 with just under a minute left on Ka’imi Fairbairn’s fifth field goal of the game.

The Jets’ defense sacked Watson six times, three by defensive end Henry Anderson, but Watson was able to make enough plays, including a 45-yard touchdown strike to Hopkins in the first half. The Texans had a 16-3 lead when the Jets came to life.

You could feel the momentum shift in the second half after Darnold led a last-minute touchdown drive just before halftime. The Jets were flying around the field on defense in the third quarter, forcing three three-and-out drives. On offense, the Jets reached the end zone on their first drive of the half on a pretty 13-yard connection between Darnold and Andre Roberts.

After the game, there was some searching for moral victories with the way Darnold played, but most Jets were not interested in that. They were left searching for answers again.

“It’s very frustrating,” tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “There’s really no words for it. We had an opportunity to beat a playoff contender, a division leader. We had them on the ropes and didn’t close it out.”

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