DENVER, CO – Santonio Holmes slowed down and turned his shoulders, in perfect position to retrieve a falling prayer. His streaking route had positioned him just short of the goal-line, a game changing receiver prepared to rescue his team from a potentially infuriating defeat. But Holmes lost his footing, tumbling downward into a prone, sitting position, unable to corral the turf bound football. Something had gone wrong, and the confusion would be clarified almost instantaneously. A flag flew, justifying Holmes’ exasperated mannerisms. The former most valuable player of the Super Bowl had been the victim of pass interference, a ruling gracing New York, and dooming Denver to a painful home loss.
Their veteran defensive-back, Renaldo Hill, had been expertly shifted out of position by Holmes, a route running extraordinaire. Hill inadvertently grabbed the Holmes’ facemask, as the pivotal play unfolded. The Jets would resume their possession at the Broncos’ two-yard line, and take a fourth quarter lead in this turgid tilt.
The score would stand, New York heading into a perfectly timed bye 5-1 after a 24-20 success. “I’d like to apologize for that win. No I wouldn’t,” said a joking Ryan afterward, acknowledging the game’s difficulty.
A variety of factors had pressed the green and white into a tough situation. The quasi Hail Mary to Holmes occurred on fourth down, in the vanishing frames of the final quarter. Had Holmes not drawn the flag, the Jets, barring a miraculous twist, would have been saddled with their season’s second setback.
Mark Sanchez had been largely ineffective. His troubles began almost immediately, the previously surging sophomore nearly intercepted twice on the Jets’ opening drive. Later in the first, he was picked off by linebacker Jason Hunter, who lurked in front of Jerricho Cotchery. This mistake wouldn’t haunt the Jets, as the Broncos blew an ensuing field goal courtesy of a grounded snap. Broncos Long Snapper Lonnie Paxton had, in effect, kept the game scoreless, but Sanchez’s difficulties were just beginning. It seemed he had shaken his inaccuracy with a nifty touchdown toss to Braylon Edwards. The second quarter volley gave the Jets a 7-0 lead, a perfect thirty two yard strike lofted over a beaten Champ Bailey, who suffered a slight rib injury on the play.
However, Denver returned fire, tallying ten unanswered points before the half. The Broncos were aided and abided by a temporarily floundering Sanchez, their second interception setting up kicker Matt Prater’s dramatic 59 yard field goal before halftime. Sanchez was picked off by rookie Syd’Quan Thomson as he sought Dustin Keller. The Jets had been driving for pre-halftime points, stopped at Denver’s twenty eight, making the gaffe even more frustrating. “If I could have taken it back, I know Schotty called a pass, I wish we would have just called a run. There’s no need to put the ball in the air… Nick will knock that field goal down… If I had any sense going back now, I’d just change the play call and just run it,” Sanchez later admitted.
But Sanchez would surmount his struggles, rallying in the second half, especially on the deciding heave to Holmes, scrambling out of the pocket for extra time and hurling an extremely catchable ball. He avoided any additional interceptions and didn’t allow the adversity to spiral into total ineffectiveness. In this respect, Sanchez displayed growth, and further separation, from his rookie weaknesses.
Sanchez’s opposite number didn’t exactly light up Mile High, himself. Kyle Orton entered the contest a highly praised signal caller, and with good reason. He had accrued enough total passing yards to rank second in the entire League. The former Purdue standout has walked miles from having his starting status usurped by Rex Grossman in Chicago. Indeed, Orton’s abilities were once considered so suspect that he was hooked while leading a playoff bound team in 2005, and the statistics supported that particular decision. Once seen as a liability, Orton is now the only explanation for the Broncos’ respectability. He has mastered Josh McDaniels’ offense, and while other aspects of the franchise have gone awry, the faith Denver’s second year Head Coach displayed in Orton has certainly paid dividends.
But on a day where Denver utilized intelligent motion formations and heretofore theoretical personnel packages deploying Tim Tebow, their suspect running game actually outperformed Orton and the aerial show. The Jets’ deep secondary proved up to the challenge of shutting down scrap-heap gem Brandon Lloyd and speedster Eddie Royal, along with physically gifted freshman Demaryius Thomas. Sure, Revis and company were far from perfect, but considering how often the Broncos send it skyward, their collective productivity was vital. Orton did conclude with 209 yards and touchdown to Thomas, who used his height advantage in giving Denver an ultimately nullified seven point lead in the third quarter.
Denver’s last advantage numbered three points, on a Prater field goal in the fourth. They pushed the Jets to the edge, but the A.F.C. East leaders responded.
The Broncos’ efforts to put this one away were squandered, despite multiple opportunities. There were the two near interceptions on the game’s opening drive, immediately followed by a Knowshon Moreno fumble as Denver rushed to the Jets’ 22. The turnover was coerced by the combination of Jim Leonhard and Drew Coleman, loose pigskin recovered by Darrelle Revis. Here was the start of a theme. The aforementioned botched snap cost Denver three points. After nailing a 59 yarder before the half, Prater badly missed on a 49 yard attempt early in the third quarter. This allowed a proceeding Nick Folk 56 yard boot to tie the contest. “Nick Folk, with a 56 yard field goal, that’s a New York Jet record and I’m really proud of him,” applauded Ryan.
Hill’s pass interference should have been the coup de grace, a fitting finale to a game which just may have been decided by the Broncos’ costly collection of self-afflicted wounds. Instead, Denver had one more unforced error up their sleeve. With the seconds ticking away after LaDainian Tomlinson’s go-ahead touchdown, Orton passed Denver down to the Jets’ 44 yard-line. On a key third down, he would see his efforts ruined by another poor snap, this time arriving from center J.D. Walton. Orton tried to catch the wayward snap with one hand, but it rolled away, Denver’s star quarterback reduced to bobbling in vain for one last fourth and long. Dwight Lowery recovered the fumble, sealing a second straight game with a defensive turnover.
It was a strange showing by the Broncos, considering that they also excelled at several junctures. Tebow shined, tying the game in the first quarter on his first career rushing touchdown. The Florida Gators icon kept New York’s rushing defense off balance whenever he lined up under center, misdirecting the Jets’ defense and providing running room for an embattled running back corps. Moreno, returning from injury, managed a 4.0 rushing rate on twelve carries. Jabar Gaffney, whose father played for the Jets, and who also had torched New York in a Wild Card playoff while with New England four years ago, haunted New York again with six grabs. And most surprisingly, Denver’s secondary, filled with inexperience aside from Bailey and Hill, stymied Sanchez. A heady onside kick call by McDaniels, made after Denver tied the game, would have given the Broncos ample momentum had the recovery been cashed in for points. “When they give you the opportunity, you take it, and they gave us the opportunity, like we studied on film, and it worked out exactly the way we thought it would,” said McDaniels of the special teams gambit.
The Jets’ top performers would have their efforts rewarded with a win. Tomlinson had two rushing touchdowns, Keller seventy-five yards receiving on just three catches. Holmes chipped in with four receptions. On defense, David Harris was a play wrecker all day, totaling seven solo tackles.
“It was an all-out onslaught, their fans, everything, they needed everything they had. They bought it, hats off to them, but it just wasn’t enough,” Sanchez said.
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