Barton Silverman/The New York Times
Jeremy Kerley hauled in the first of three Mark Sanchez touchdown passes for the Jets. More Photos »
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — A miserable winter for the Jets bled into an optimistic spring, which gave way to a summer bursting with promise and possibility — at least from their perspective. For months, they were besieged with questions about the potential for a quarterback controversy, then dismissed them with a steely glance. They absorbed criticism for a sputtering offense, for curious personnel decisions — an unproven right tackle, an inexperienced receiving corps, a sociocultural phenomenon as Mark Sanchez’s backup — for being equal parts carnival attraction and football team.
In their opener Sunday at MetLife Stadium, the Jets pulverized the Buffalo Bills, 48-28, an emphatic I-told-you-so by their coach, Rex Ryan, and a team that felt as if it has not been taken seriously. The reaction among their players afterward teemed not of vindication but of clairvoyance, as if all along they had predicted the demolition that cast the Jets, and not the presumptive upstart Bills, as the primary challenger to the New England Patriots in the A.F.C. East.
“Does it answer y’all’s questions?” cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. His hands were on his hips, a portrait of defiance, but a smile creased his face.
The answer to Cromartie’s retort is complex. Drawing conclusions after one game is a perilous endeavor, as futile as divining meaning from preseason statistics or results, but the Jets can — and will — derive encouragement from how they overwhelmed Buffalo in the first 36 minutes, scoring touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in going ahead, 41-7.
In the first game of the most critical season of his career, Sanchez delivered a masterly performance, presiding over an offense that would be hard-pressed to equal the efficiency and consistency it revealed Sunday. After managing only 31 points and a touchdown in the preseason, the Jets scored on five consecutive possessions against Buffalo, converted 71 percent (10 of 14) of their third downs and did not allow a sack. Sanchez carved up the Bills’ secondary as comfortably as he has dealt with Tim Tebow’s arrival, completing passes to eight receivers, including four each to the rookie Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley, who combined to score the Jets’ first four touchdowns. Kerley’s second touchdown came on a 68-yard punt return.
“I knew we were really close in the preseason,” said Sanchez, who completed 19 of 27 passes for 266 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception that he called “stupid.” “Did I know it was 48 points? No, I didn’t necessarily know that.”
Ryan is no longer in the business of making predictions, but he told his players Saturday night that he thought they would score early and often. “They know I don’t tell them something that I don’t believe in,” Ryan said.
Linebacker Calvin Pace, part of the brigade that pummeled Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick for much of the first half, was a bit more circumspect. “I’m going to be honest,” Pace said. “I didn’t really know what to think.”
Mostly because their preseason showing revealed an offense that was bland and unproductive — by design, they said (the bland part, at least) — and that lacked the ingenuity or creativity reflected by what they had called “some version of something” implemented for Tebow. The details of their intentions had been guarded with NASA-like secrecy, but the grand unveiling proved rather anticlimactic, producing five rushes for 11 yards. At times, the Wildcat even seemed disruptive to the progress forged by Sanchez. When Tebow was stopped for no gain on a second-quarter run in the red zone, the crowd booed. Imagine that, Tebow jeered before Sanchez.
Not once was Sanchez taunted, not even on the Jets’ first possession when his ill-advised flip was intercepted. Ryan quipped, “I was thinking we should bench him,” but Sanchez rebounded to lead the Jets on two consecutive touchdown drives, capped by a 12-yard catch by Kerley and a 33-yard grab by Hill. Speaking about Sanchez’s resilience, Tebow said, “That’s what you want in a quarterback.”
There is more to see of Tebow, more gadgetry than was put forth Sunday, when he also lined up at slot receiver and recovered an onside kick. But he was as much of a factor as the Bills’ monstrous defensive end, Mario Williams, who was matched up against an untested Austin Howard.
All week, Ryan — and the coordinator Tony Sparano, and the prideful souls on the offensive line — vowed that Howard, making his first start for the Jets at right tackle, could handle Williams, the centerpiece of the Bills’ defensive makeover. With the Jets chip-blocking Williams and mixing their protections, the only impact he registered Sunday was after the game, and with his mouth. He bemoaned how “pass blocking doesn’t include hands to the face.” Told about Williams’s comments, the Jets shrugged.
Collectively, they had made their point. Their swarming defense had flummoxed Fitzpatrick into throwing three interceptions — to Darrelle Revis, Kyle Wilson and Cromartie, who went 40 yards for a touchdown as Fitzpatrick looked away — and also forced a fumble. By the time the Jets sagged, yielding three second-half touchdowns that helped Buffalo draw to 41-28 with 5 minutes 58 seconds remaining, they were celebrating victory.
Next up is a stern test in Pittsburgh, another opportunity to change the perception, to nurture this new narrative: the Jets, after an off-season of dysfunction and a preseason of skepticism, are winners again.