CHICAGO -- This is defensive end Leonard Williams' fourth season with the New York Jets, and he has yet to experience the postseason -- a good player on bad teams. Once again, they're 3-5 at the midpoint, a repeat of 2016 and 2017. It's an ominous trend, to be sure, but Williams insisted this will have a different outcome.
"To me, it's not the same old Jets," he said after Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Chicago Bears, using the three most dreaded words in the lexicon of any Jets fan. "To me, there's a different feel in the locker room. There's a different atmosphere when I come to work. Even after this loss, it's not like guys are hanging their heads and fighting with each other or pointing fingers."
Williams is right: The Jets have better team chemistry than past years, but there comes a point where the talk sounds hollow if the chemistry doesn't start translating into wins.
Now is that point.
The Jets, losers of two straight, start a three-game stretch against AFC East foes, beginning Sunday on the road against the Miami Dolphins. Their season is going south, and now they get a trip to South Beach to make a statement. It's a big game on many levels.
"It's a must-win," cornerback Morris Claiborne said in the visitors' locker room at Soldier Field. "By any means, we have to win this game."
Across the room, linebacker Brandon Copeland expressed a similar sense of urgency.
"I won't say what I think it is, but, yeah, it's huge," said Copeland, who went on to say what he didn't want to say. "From now on, it's must-win. I hate to give quotes like that, but every division game is a playoff game for us and we need to treat it as such. And we will treat is as such."
The Jets are 0-1 in the division, having lost to the Dolphins in Week 2. Since then, the Dolphins have fallen on hard times -- a two-game losing streak, a vanishing defense (74 points allowed in those two games) and Brock Osweiler at quarterback.
If they're lucky, the Jets will get backups Osweiler and the Buffalo Bills' Derek Anderson in the next two games. It's a chance to turn around the season, saving themselves from pre-Thanksgiving irrelevancy.
It'll take some doing, though.
The Jets need to rediscover their running game. Against the Khalil Mack-less Bears, Isaiah Crowell and Trenton Cannon combined for 35 yards on 19 carries. At one point, Crowell failed to gain a yard on five straight carries. The longest run of the day? It was 13 yards ... from quarterback Sam Darnold.
"Very frustrating," Crowell said.
Darnold has no chance -- repeat, no chance -- to succeed without the support of a running game. The passing attack was a rumor against the Bears, as Darnold -- without starting receivers Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson -- was essentially operating on a 10-yard field. His receivers gained no separation whatsoever, forcing him to scramble or throw it away. Remarkably, he took only one sack and had no turnovers.
"I thought he played tough," coach Todd Bowles said of Darnold, who completed only 14 of 29 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown. "We knew it was going to be a tough game. It was one of those type of games with the wind blowing ... but he didn't turn it over and that's the main thing. He was giving us a chance."
Darnold wasn't the problem. On offense, the Jets committed five pre-snap penalties -- all false starts. That's inexcusable and speaks to a lack of focus. You can't control injuries, but you can control dumb penalties. The defense played reasonably well but disappeared at the biggest time, allowing a 79-yard touchdown drive after the Jets had closed to within 17-10.
"In big, defining moments like that," Williams said, "we have to step up."
In many ways, they have reached another big, defining moment. This team and this coach need a victory.
"I know it's just words right now and we've been talking," linebacker Jordan Jenkins said, "but now we have to walk the walk."