The debacle that was the New York Jets' 2012 season can be traced to a single game in 2009.
Yes, before we look to 2013, we must first go back and look at a bunch of "what ifs" that all start with Week 16 in 2009 and end with two regular-season wins against teams with nothing to play for and two wins against teams with abysmal playoff pasts.
Going into the next-to-last week of the 2009 NFL regular season, the Jets were 7-7. They controlled their own playoff destiny but had to beat two playoff-bound teams to accomplish their goal.
Win your last two games and you're in.
For starters, New York needed to beat the Indianapolis Colts, who were 14-0 coming into their Week 16 matchup and were heavily favored to beat the Jets.
Then they needed to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17.
In Week 16, Colts first-year head coach Jim Caldwell rested his starters with a 15-10 lead and 5:36 left in the third quarter. Playing against the Colts' scrubs, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez led the Jets to 19 straight points against the Colts, en route to the win.
Sanchez's stat line looked very 2012, sans the multiple interceptions. He completed 12-of-19 passes for just 106 yards with no touchdown passes.
A week later, the Bengals came to town with nothing to play for.
Head coach Marvin Lewis sat star running back Cedric Benson from the start and the rest of the Bengals' offensive stars, including quarterback Carlson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, were pulled in the third quarter.
Somehow, despite Sanchez completing just 8-of-16 passes for 63 yards—the Jets stomped the Bengals 37-0 and walked into the playoffs.
The Bengals tallied 72 offensive yards. Yes, that's total yards gained.
The Jets so dismantled the second and third-string Bengals that the whipping carried over into the first-round playoff game—a rematch with Cincy on the road.
Sanchez entered the playoffs as the lowest-ranked passer in the postseason, throwing 20 interceptions, second-most in the league. But he had one of his best games as a Jet to that point, completing 12-of-15 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown as the Jets won 24-14 on the road.
The Bengals failed to secure their first playoff victory since 1990.
The 2009 Chargers would be no different, falling to the Jets 17-14 at home despite having a week off to get healthy and game plan.
The game featured another mediocre performance by Sanchez, who completed just 12-of-23 passes for 100 yards.
New York's dream-sequence playoff run ended the very next week, at the hands of the fully-manned Colts.
But the blue print for what happened in 2012 was laid out.
The 2009 season is to blame for the 1,846 times Rex Ryan uttered the phrase "Mark [Sanchez] gives us the best chance to win" in 2012.
The 2009 season is why Rex Ryan's ego continues to get in the way of overwhelming evidence that would tell any reasonable person that his boy, Sanchez, is a broken man.
The 2009 season is why Tim Tebow just lost a year of his life, stuck in a bad dream that even his biggest haters could not have wished on him.
The 2009 season is why Jets fans are left with a plethora of "what ifs" to ponder.
What if the Colts don't rest their starters in Week 16 and the Jets are eliminated from the playoffs?
What if the Bengals don't tank it in Week 17 and the Jets go home for the winter without a second shot at Cincinnati?
What if the Jets finish 7-9 and management is left wondering if starting Sanchez—who ends the season completing just 53 percent of his passes, with only 2,444 yards, 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions—was the right move?
What if Rex Ryan's prediction that the Jets were Super Bowl favorites doesn't come within a hair of being a possibility?
Sometimes success is fleeting. Worse yet, sometimes success is deceptive, damning even.
Had the Jets not plucked victory from defeat; had two playoff-bound teams not laid down for Gang Green those last two weeks of the season; had the Jets not lucked into a pair of playoff pretenders in the first two rounds, then Rex Ryan maybe has a quicker trigger-finger for Sanchez in 2012?
Maybe Ryan utters the phrase, "I think Greg McElroy gives us the best chance to win this week" sooner rather than later. Maybe even he inserts the name "Tebow" into that phrase.
Maybe Mike Tannenbaum's input on player personnel is put in check after last year and the Tebow disaster does not happen?
Then again, maybe the Jets simply won too much too early and fooled everyone into thinking that Sanchez was the answer.