There wasn't much more the New York Jets could have asked for as they took to their home field to play the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Giants Stadium.
They were fresh off their most dominating victory of the season, a 38-10 thrashing of the Packers in Green Bay last Sunday.
They'd won their last two games and five of their last seven and had themselves in the thick of the AFC wild-card playoff race.
They had already defeated the Bills earlier this season, 28-20, in Buffalo.
Add to that the marvelous opportunity to pull ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos, who had started the day tied with the Jets but had already lost to the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers, respectively.
And, even more tantalizing was the AFC East-leading New England Patriots being upset by the Miami Dolphins, meaning a Jets victory would inch them to within a game of the division lead.
The only problem for the Jets Sunday was that they had to play the Bills, who throttled them, 31-13, and dealt a severe blow to their playoff hopes.
The Buffalo victory lifted the Bills to 6-7 and dropped the Jets to 7-6, one game behind the Bengals and Jaguars (both winners Sunday) in the wild-card chase.
"We took a step back today in all facets," Jets linebacker Matt Chatham said.
"We were in the best situation we could possibly be in . . . and obviously, we took a step back," fellow linebacker Jonathan Vilma said.
"In this league, anytime you lose you let precious opportunity slip away," said quarterback Chad Pennington, who was intercepted twice by the Bills, including one by cornerback Nate Clements, who returned it 58 yards for a touchdown and a 21-10 Buffalo lead late in the first half.
Pennington also fumbled the ball away at the Jets' 18-yard line when he was sacked by defensive end Aaron Schobel, leading to Buffalo's final touchdown -- a J.P. Losman pass to tight end Robert Royal. Pennington blamed himself for the Jets' spotty offensive performance.
"It was lack of execution and it always starts with the quarterback," Pennington said. "I have to do a better job of putting us in successful positions."
After the game, Jets rookie head coach Eric Mangini appeared more disappointed in his players than he's been since he arrived in New York.
"The message is pretty clear," Mangini said. "Buffalo is a good team and we knew this would be very difficult with the energy and motor they play with. We needed to match that and we didn't do it. Across the board, it was a collective effort in the other [wrong] direction."
Mangini lamented the big plays the Jets allowed -- three of more than 50 yards, including a 57-yard Willis McGahee touchdown run that gave the Bills a 7-0 lead, a 77-yard Losman scoring pass to Lee Evans that gave the Bills a 14-10 lead and Clements' 58-yard interception return.
"Big plays were killing us," Chatham said. "We need to give up less and get more."
Those big plays, along with the Jets' three turnovers, spelled doom for the Jets' chances of gaining on New England and keeping pace with Cincinnati and Jacksonville.
Now they're faced with the possibility of having to win their final three games -- at Minnesota next Sunday, in Miami on Christmas night and then home against Oakland on New Year's Eve -- to get to 10-6 and earn a postseason berth.
"To lose by three scores at home, that's humbling," Jets veteran left guard Pete Kendall said. "I don't question our approach and I don't question our mind-set. But I go back to the three huge plays that went in their favor and we didn't generate enough on our own. That was the difference in the game."