Mark Sanchez faked the handoff and dropped backward into the pocket with quick, balletic steps. He shifted himself clear of an onrushing, sack seeking Patriots defensive-line, all the while scanning for an open receiver in the end-zone, head darting to and fro. Here was the Jets’ second-year quarterback, quite rightly questioned in the days leading up to a pivotal divisional contest, displaying all the attributes which made him such a heralded talent. His athleticism, most impressive in close quarters, allowed for an intricate play design capable of rendering the opposing secondary totally defenseless. Sanchez’s physical gifts are rarely questioned. But his prowess executing finer points of quarterbacking, elements including sound decision-making, touch passing, and other less definable intangible skills, have often been under fire.
So, when the highly scrutinized sophomore waited patiently before floating a perfectly thrown toss toward Dustin Keller, who corralled the pass for a touchdown, the roar emanating from a frenzied New Meadowlands crowd not only indicated a single game being won, but perhaps more dizzying possibilities being blown open. If Sanchez could be this precise, firing lasers on intermediate routes and lofting easy jumpers for the likes of Braylon Edwards, the Jets would be suddenly light-years from the disappointment of week one, returned into the ranks of championship contenders, heavy talent playing big games, deserving of the advanced acclaim. “We didn’t pay much attention to the criticism,” said Sanchez following the win. “This team has some great leaders and a lot of experience to lean on.”
This particular play, a touchdown eventually giving the Jets a 28-14 advantage in the fourth quarter, may not have been a total nail in the coffin, but it certainly stacked a near insurmountable deck against Count Brady and his Patriots. After a lopsided first quarter absolutely owned by New England, it appeared this contest would serve as another exhibition of a legendary Quarterback’s skill, as Brady surgically skewered the Jets, his impeccable feel for the game on full display. A booted thirty seven yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, after a costly delay of game, didn’t seem likely to be a factor.
Ultimately, however, the late afternoon belonged to Sanchez. As premier teammates fell to injury, Sanchez stood and delivered, proving, without a doubt, that his postseason success had not been a mirage. “I don’t even feel like it’s a rebound,” Sanchez claimed. “It just felt like we played smarter.”
Sanchez hardly had an opportunity to find his rhythm in the initial quarter, the Jets’ offense running a mere three plays, forced to watch from the sidelines as Brady collected first downs seemingly at will. “It was the fastest quarter of my life,” Sanchez said. “It was weird. We didn’t convert on the first down and it was important to pick everybody up and say, ‘Hey, we’re fine. Don’t worry about.’”
It may have been an unexpected development, considering how the extremely early season had developed, but the green and white would suddenly strike in the second quarter, answering a Brady to Welker touchdown connection that had all the routine trappings of a standard pizza delivery.
It began on third down, where the Jets had met abject failure against the Ravens, an offensive deficiency that probably cost them a win. This time, though, Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards on a thirteen yard completion; and a dysfunctional group, highly touted entering the campaign, met with sudden transformation. Here was a Jets offense out of a die-hard’s wildest dream. And Sanchez didn’t merely guide the orchestra, in the first half; he was practically one man jam. Driving the Jets downfield and aided by an unnecessary roughness rap against Tully Banta Cain after a short completion to Jerricho Cotchery, Sanchez exhibited commendable poise and an occasional flash of improvisational brilliance, the latter best displayed on a whirling shovel toss to LaDainian Tomlinson for nine yards. Sanchez’s momentum manufacturing jaunt concluded with a gorgeous ten yard lead for Braylon Edwards in the left corner of the end-zone. The game was now tied, and Sanchez was far from finished. He’d steal three points before the half, setting up a clutch forty nine yard Nick Folk field goal with two long completions to Tight-End Dustin Keller, followed by a couple of short dishes to Tomlinson and Edwards. And buoyed by a rejuvenated running game in the second half, Sanchez went about the impressive task of completing outplaying the maestro himself, Tom Brady, who saw his stat-line marred by two interceptions and a lost fumble. After being shaken up by a vicious sack from Gerard Warren on the half’s first possession, Sanchez rallied the Jets for eighteen unanswered points. “Woah,” said Sanchez with a laugh, as he recalled the Warren hit, “He readjusted my back. That was terrible. He made a pretty good hit on me. That was a big boy.” Expert route runner Jerricho Cotchery, conspicuously quiet through the season’s first six quarters, nabbed two catches, including a two yard touchdown, on the Jets’ go-ahead drive. Trailing by one point after a Nick Folk’s second field goal, this one from thirty six, Cotchery’s catch capped a minor comeback, and propelled the home crowd into satisfied madness. New York now led 19-14, and Braylon Edwards, responding to the slings of Joe Namath, leapt over Darius Butler on the successive two-point conversion to give gang green an edge of seven on the ledger.
No, Sanchez didn’t flourish alone. Week one had already shown this to be an impossibility. The Jets’ offense couldn’t carry this day without the efforts of Edwards, Keller, and Tomlinson. “Both Dustin and Braylon, you can’t find those guys without having somebody occupying Jerricho because he runs such good routes, such good, crisp routes,” said Sanchez, praising his receivers. “Dustin had a heck of a game and there are still a couple of ones I want back to him because we weren’t on the same page, believe it or not.”
Edwards had a huge first half while the New York struggled with the run, finishing with five catches and a touchdown. Keller, meanwhile, was a monster all day long, terrorizing the Patriots’ safeties and linebackers with seven catches and one hundred fifteen yards receiving. The affable tight-end rebounded resoundingly after playing a pivotal role in the Monday Night debacle, stepping out of bounds one yard short of the marker on a desperation fourth down, mercifully ending a bumbling offense’s evening of ineptitude. Flip the script. Keller consistently ran free, like a glitch in master schemer Bill Belichick’s defensive programming. “It’s hard to mentally beat a New England team,” said Keller. “They just seem so mentally tough. No matter what the score is, you never play like you have the game won until the buzzer goes off, until the game is over because they have Tom Brady back there and he can do anything at any moment.” Time and again Keller broke off his routes behind the linebackers and in front of the safeties, an overruled interception on a tip in the first quarter his sole mistake while shouldering a heavy burden. How much did the Jets rely on Keller? He was targeted nine times. And he quite fittingly sealed the game. “I have to talk to [Brian Schottenheimer] about what the progression is, but I don’t think I’m the first one,” Keller said of his touchdown grab. “But I’m glad it came my way.”
Tomlinson, penciled in as a Hall of Fame scat-back, resembled the every down force of sunny San Diego afternoons long past, especially in the second-half, where he asserted himself with several big runs. The veteran finished with seventy six yards rushing on eleven attempts, for an eye-popping 6.9 average. Supported by an offense finding their comfort zone, the Jets defense dug in during the second half and pitched a shutout. They seemed ill-equipped to stop the plentiful weapons at Brady’s disposal, hitting nadir before halftime as Randy Moss burnt Darrelle Revis with an incredible one-handed touchdown. Moss caught the football as if it were a loaf of bread, not even bothering to use his other available hand for support. Revis injured his hamstring on the play, missing the second-half. “I have no idea,” said Revis, when asked how long he would be out. “We are just going to go about it day-by-day. I’m just going to keep getting treatment and go from there.”
Instead of the beginning of a demise, the Jets’ defense rose to the occasion, pivotal interceptions by Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool turning the tide. Cromartie collected his pick in the third quarter while covering Moss down the right sideline. The Jets’ would cash in his efforts with three points. “There was a two-man coverage, and basically, I played inside leverage,” said Cromartie. “I figured he wasn’t doing an out-route, so I manned him [up] and just turned up for the ball. We got pressure on him [Brady] and he just threw the ball up. I just tried to make a play on it.’
Even bigger may have Pool’s, arriving after the Jets had gone up by seven. Brady again dialed up Moss against Cromartie, the ball deflected into the arms of the safety Pool, appearing in his first Jets game. Pool was originally ruled out of bounds, but the play was challenged, revealing Pool had utilized world class dexterity, sliding his two toes across the turf before careening off the field of play.
Jason Taylor shook off an elbow injury and drilled Tom Brady for the coup de grace, his strip sack retrieved by Bryan Thomas. Unfortunately for the Jets, Taylor was again shaken after the play. Injuries were the sole blight for New York, as the aforementioned Revis aggravated his hamstring, Brad Smith hurt his jaw, and Nick Mangold banged up his left shoulder. “I don’t have any [updates],” said Head Coach Rex Ryan regarding the injuries. “I’m not sure of the injury situations. I know we had a few.” Mangold returned and was available for the press after the game.
Wes Welker took a late, nasty hit from Eric Smith early, answering the aggression with a touchdown catch. Braylon Edwards was charged with an unsportsmanlike penalty after his touchdown catch. Patriots rookie Tight-End Aaron Hernandez was ultimately overshadowed by Keller, but he had a commendable day in his own right, with six receptions for one hundred one yards. “It didn’t feel too good,” Hernandez said of his game, “because we didn’t come out with the victory.”