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Don’t get bowled over by climb to .500 finish

This should come as no surprise, but Rex Ryan couldn’t help himself. Moments after his team completed its heroic run to an 8-8 season, the Bills’ head coach couldn’t resist the urge to take a parting swipe at his critics.

It was a fairly innocuous question that set him off. I asked Rex if he had felt confident about his chances against Ryan Fitzpatrick, considering that Sunday turned into a blueprint of his many wins over Fitz through the years, dating back to his days as a Bill.

“I don’t know,” Ryan sneered after the Bills’ 22-17 win over the Jets at The Ralph. “You guys know me. I’ve got a horrible résumé as a defensive coach. You guys are trying to point it out all the time, but the facts don’t back you up a lot.”

You would think the man would be more humble after missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row. Ryan could have said some nice things about Fitz, who was across the hall struggling to explain a miserable performance in the biggest game of his life.

Naturally, Ryan made it about himself. During the week, he admitted he was wrong to promise the playoffs on his arrival in Buffalo. He said he had learned his lesson. This from a man who once guaranteed a Super Bowl for the Jets and went 8-8.

This makes five straight seasons in which Ryan’s teams have failed to finish with a winning record, five years without playoffs. Next year, he could become only the fourth coach since the merger to miss the postseason in six straight calendar years.

But winning two straight games and dashing his former team’s playoff hopes was cause for puffing his chest out. Exulting over a .500 season is old hat for Ryan. He saved his job in New York in 2013 by winning the final two games to scale the Everest of 8-8.

Ryan said this wasn’t as emotional as beating the Jets in November in his return to the Meadowlands. But he couldn’t deny that it was gratifying to quash the dreams of the organization that sent him packing.

“It feels all right,” Ryan said. “But obviously, our goals were set a lot higher than this, to be 8-8 or whatever. There’s a lot of teams that will mail it in. This team certainly wasn’t one of them, despite all the negative criticism we got as a team, through national media, through local media and all that kind of stuff.”

I suppose a lot of fans derived satisfaction from the win. The Bills finished with consecutive non-losing seasons for the first time in this millennium. It was the third 8-8 finish in the last five years for Ryan. After the last two, it got worse, by the way.

To be fair, the Bills played an inspired game for their embattled coach. On a day when skeptics felt they might lie down, they performed as if this was a game with profound significance, rather than the finale in the 16th straight season without playoffs.

“It seemed a lot of things came together a little too late,” said nickel back Nickell Robey. “So we need to keep what we’re doing now and carry it into next season.”

That’s been the rallying cry for 16 years. Yes, the Bills will build on it. They’ll carry it into next season, using this rousing late-season surge to propel them on to greater things next season.

There were some encouraging signs against the Jets. It starts with wideout Sammy Watkins, who continued his torrid late-season surge with 11 catches for 136 yards. Watkins went over 1,000 yards, finishing with 60 catches for 1,047 yards despite missing three games. Over his last six, he had 679 yards receiving, which translates to 1,811 over a full season.

Late in the year, Watkins became a vocal leader. He excoriated his teammates after the Washington loss and said anyone who didn’t want to be with the program should be shown the door. Maybe his message resonated these last two weeks.

“That’s my job,” Watkins said. “I think I need to become a better leader, and if I do that, this team will be better. We need more leaders. We have a lot of great players, but we don’t have that many leaders. We need to hold people accountable in the whole locker room, from the coaches to the players to everybody.”

It sounds as if the players held their coach accountable. Ryan actually talked with players about which schemes to run. Mario Williams said the defense called the play on the final interception. The defense ran more conventional blitzes and had a fine day.

Still, this game had to leave suffering fans with a stab of regret. Watching the Bills outplay the Jets for the second time this season – by identical 22-17 scores – they had to wonder why the Bills didn’t play this way more often, and why it took so long.

It’s maddening to know they could beat the Jets twice and finish two games behind them in the AFC East. And as for Rex’s dominance over Fitz: In two games against the Bills this year, Fitzpatrick completed 43 percent of his passes for 187 yards a game. In seven games against Ryan as a Bill, he completed 50.2 percent and averaged 174 yards passing.

At the risk of offending Ryan, I’d say he ran simple, aggressive schemes in the wintry, windy conditions on Sunday, but insisted on overthinking in too many other games this season, especially those against the Patriots, Giants and Bengals early in the season.

I’m sure the big shots at One Bills Drive will emphasize injuries in their post-mortems. But it’s hard to understand why Ryan’s team didn’t produce this sort of inspired, disciplined and well-coached effort on a more regular basis during the season.

Many of Watkins’ catches were on shots over the middle against Darrelle Revis, one of the greatest cornerbacks ever. Where was that earlier in the year, when Watkins was begging for more targets and Tyrod Taylor seemed unwilling to probe the middle of the field?

“We had missed opportunities early in the season,” Robey said. “It was our first season with this coaching staff. There’s been changes in the culture of the organization, and the people in the organization. All that has changed.

“We’re not as bad as everybody thinks we are,” he said. “We’re just one step away from being a great team. We just have to carry that over to next season.”

That sounds good, but the transition is rarely easy from one season to the next. Ryan said after the Washington loss that changes are inevitable. The roster will look a lot different next season after they make the necessary deletions from an overpriced roster.

So they didn’t quit. Big deal. It was a season of unfulfilled promise, a year in which things were lined up for them. Considering the promises and the millions spent to position them for a playoff run, it might have been the most distressing of the 16 nonplayoff years.

They had a supposedly great defense, a swaggering boss in Ryan, some high-priced offensive additions in LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay, plus a schedule that matched them up with the two weakest divisions in the NFL in their crossovers.

And still, they fell short. Winning the last two and spoiling it for the Jets won’t change the fact that 2015 was a colossal disappointment. They say the finish is something to build on, but there’s a good chance that things will get worse from here, not better.