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‘The worst part of the game’: How Aaron Rodgers’ Jets debut unraveled

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Shortly after 8 p.m. ET, New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers emerged from the tunnel waving an American flag — the last player introduced before a raucous crowd of 83,000 at MetLife Stadium. The building looked like a giant nightclub, with a machine pumping smoke into the air and fans waving green LED lights.

This was supposed to be the start of a special season, with Rodgers — a future Hall of Famer — lifting the star-crossed franchise to new heights.

Twenty-five minutes later, he was helped off the field by two members of the Jets’ medical team. Just like that, the Super Bowl dream had been severely compromised. It happened only 4:04 into the game — 244 seconds. It happened on the Jets’ fourth snap.

On the fateful play, Rodgers was twisted into the ground on a sack by Buffalo Bills defensive end Leonard Floyd, suffering what the team fears is a significant Achilles injury. Afterward, coach Robert Saleh said the Jets expect an MRI Tuesday to confirm their worst fears.

After five months of buildup and breathless hype, it appears to have ended before he could complete a pass.

For the Jets, who have a tortured history of quarterback calamities, this was eerily reminiscent of the 1999 opener. With Super Bowl aspirations that year, quarterback Vinny Testaverde suffered a season-ending Achilles rupture in the second quarter. They finished 8-8.

Testaverde was in attendance Monday night as an honorary captain. He watched as a guest in owner Woody Johnson’s private box.

“Seeing Aaron get hurt definitely brought back some bad memories,” Testaverde said in a text to ESPN during the game. “Hopefully, it’s not a serious injury.”

Boomer Esiason, another former Jets quarterback who has witnessed his share of cruel twists with the team, texted from his home, “Totally deflated and sick to my stomach.”

Another ex-Jets quarterback, Neil O’Donnell, who suffered a freakish, season-ending calf injury in 1996, was in the stadium, watching from Section 132.

The Jets beat the Bills in overtime 22-16, but it was overshadowed by what likely will be a season-ending injury to Rodgers. His Jets teammates and coaches and Bills players provide a closer look at one of the worst moments in Jets history:

Laken Tomlinson, left guard: “I mean, when he went down, we tried to pull him up and he went back down and we saw trainers coming out. At that point, it was a shock moment.”

(Tomlinson, speaking in front of his locker, started to cry. He wiped his eyes, tried to compose himself and put on his sunglasses.)

“Sorry. Sorry. This is the worst part of the game.”

Alijah Vera-Tucker, right guard: “As we were trying to lift him up or talk to him about getting up, he was just like, ‘No. I’m not getting up.’ Any time a player says that, you know it’s probably not good.”

D.J. Reed, cornerback: “At first, I didn’t know what it was. When I didn’t see him in the next series, it was like everybody on the side was wondering, ‘Is he OK? What happened?’ You have to move on because you have a game to play, but at the same time, we were a little rattled on the sideline — the defense was. We want our quarterback to be healthy.”

Robert Saleh, coach: “When they told me what they think it was, I just recall the look on Aaron’s face before he went and took his knee. I pretty much knew in the first half [that it was an Achilles injury].”

The play was out of sync. It was designed to be a quick pass, which explains why left tackle Duane Brown tried to execute a cut block on Floyd. For some reason, Rodgers held the ball, extending the play.

Brown: “I went to cut the defensive end. He played it well and he got home and Aaron got hit … I have to execute the cut better.”

Vera-Tucker: “It’s a three-step drop, get the ball out. I’m not sure what happened during the play; all I know is that he got tackled and didn’t get up.”

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