ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Ryan Fitzpatrick was hurting like never before, because this was going to be his season, his one and only. It was written all over him in a painful postgame interview, an NFL ritual that was especially cruel to the quarterback of the New York Jets, a nice guy who just blew his big chance in a spectacular way.
At 33, Fitzpatrick had never been to the playoffs. He arrived in New York with a tomato-can record of 33-55-1, and with a résumé that said he started games in eight different seasons without recording a winning record in a single one of them. Fitzpatrick wasn't just a journeyman. He was a losing journeyman, and a quarterback who inspired no more faith than the likes of Geno Smith.
But out of the clear blue, the field started tilting toward the old seventh-round pick out of Harvard in strange and surprising ways. Fitzpatrick got the starting Jets job because a teammate, IK Enemkpali, broke Smith's jaw over an unpaid debt, and by the time the quarterback showed up at Ralph Wilson Stadium with a 10-5 record, a five-game winning streak and a golden win-and-get-in opportunity, he was playing in the same ballpark with Tom Brady, Cam Newton and the rest of the NFL elite.
And that's why he bled so profusely in public Sunday when summoned to the microphone. Deep down, Fitzpatrick knows he's not Brady or Newton or Russell Wilson. He knows that average Joes like him usually don't get chances like this more than once, if they get one at all. Consider how everything was playing right into his hands. The Jets had remained relatively healthy; Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker were playing out of their minds; and the AFC side of the Super Bowl bracket had opened up for a long-shot team to make a serious run. The Jets were starting to resemble their soulmates, the Mets, and Fitzpatrick was proving to be one of the league's best closers.
So with the Jets down two scores, nobody was shocked when Fitzpatrick made a huge play late in the third quarter, stepping up into the pocket to escape turbulence and finding Decker for a 21-yard touchdown. Nobody was shocked on the next series when Fitzpatrick drove the Jets to the Buffalo 14 with more than 11 minutes to go and appeared ready to improve his 1-7 career record against Rex Ryan defenses at the best possible time.
Everybody was shocked on second down when Fitzpatrick ignored the fact his team was already in range for a go-ahead field goal and fired a pass into the end zone and right into the arms of Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin, the quarterback's first red zone interception of the year.
"I wish I had that one back," Fitzpatrick would say.
Suddenly it felt like the skies darkened and the game changed. Fitzpatrick of the Jets had morphed into Fitzpatrick of the Bills, the quarterback who was 20-33 in his four seasons in Buffalo. "We know Fitz," McKelvin would tell the Buffalo News. "Fitz is going to be Fitz."
Fitz wasn't going to shake this one off, not even close. The Jets had watched tape of Washington scoring on the same route pattern against Buffalo and figured Decker's skinny post in the end zone would produce the same result.
"But they adjusted," Marshall said. "Leodis McKelvin jumped it. We didn't even have a chance."
The Jets had chances after that. Buffalo was holding a 22-17 lead in the final minutes when Fitzpatrick started a drive with a couple of promising plays before he took a hit from Marcell Dareus on delivery, sending the ball toward the Bills' Manny Lawson and another interception with 1:51 left. The Jets got the ball again with 44 seconds to go, and two plays later Fitzpatrick made one last desperate stab at a magical finish.
He heaved the ball deep down the right sideline to a streaking Kenbrell Thompkins, who had the pass in his hands -- and an apparent clear path to the end zone -- before a lunging Mario Butler knocked it out. On the next snap Fitzpatrick threw one up for grabs in the middle of the field and found yet another Bills defender for his third interception in his final three possessions of the season.
When it was over, Marshall, who was brilliant all day, credited Fitzpatrick for playing "an amazing game" and for leading the Jets out of their midseason slump. Marshall appeared to be less charitable with Thompkins when he said, "At the end, we had our chances. We didn't come through in our room. We've got to take advantage of that moment. That's when you get a chance to make your name, and we just didn't do that."
For his part, Fitzpatrick left no doubt as to where he was assigning the blame: to the man in his own mirror. The Jets somehow came out flat, shanked a punt, committed dumb penalties and watched as young Sammy Watkins made the great Darrelle Revis look about 50 years old. But to the quarterback none of that mattered.
"All you can ask for in this game is an opportunity," Fitzpatrick said, and his Jets had more than one of those in the end. "We weren't able to pull it off," Fitzpatrick added, "and just my heart hurts so bad right now for all those guys in the locker room. ... It's the hardest and most difficult end to a season I've ever had, just in terms of how I feel right now and how painful of a loss that was."
It wasn't supposed to end like this, not after the Jets beat the Patriots on that coin toss gone awry. The Jets were supposed to weather the gusting winds at the Ralph and proudly carry an 11-5 record into the postseason one year after Ryan finally got himself fired with a 4-12.
But Ryan did what he does best -- keep the Jets out of the playoffs -- by persuading his 7-8 Bills to play as if a .500 record really mattered. Buffalo held Fitzpatrick to 181 passing yards on 16 completions in 37 attempts, and preserved his standing with Archie Manning as the NFL quarterbacks with the most career starts never to reach the playoffs.
In the locker room afterward, Fitzpatrick lowered his head as he slowly buttoned his blue dress shirt before his backup and neighbor, Geno Smith, leaned in with a few words to lighten the mood. Soon enough Fitzpatrick was out in the stadium tunnel, dropping his travel bag and heading back toward the field and the late-afternoon snow flurries to meet with his family.
The Jets likely will re-sign him, but that doesn't mean he'll pick up in September where he left off against New England in Week 16. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't Tom Brady. Guys like him get only so many chances to do what he failed to do Sunday.