The primary reason that the New York Jets (7-2) remain Super Bowl contenders in the AFC has been their uncanny ability to rescue victory from the grasp of defeat on the road this season.
Twice already, the Jets could have, and probably should have, lost away from home.
On Sunday, New York had its closest call yet, pulling out yet another dramatic road win just seconds before settling for what would have been a tie in Cleveland.
This time, the heroes were cornerback Drew Coleman (who forced a huge fumble) and the duo of quarterback Mark Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, when the two connected on a game-winning touchdown with just 16 seconds left in overtime to give the Jets a thrilling 26-20 victory over the Cleveland Browns (3-6).
Instead of a mediocre 4-4-1 season, the Jets, who got help from the Broncos during the final moments in Denver, and who had the Lions gift wrap an overtime game for them in Detroit last week, moved to a perfect 5-0 on the road to stay in the hunt for AFC’s top playoff seed, holding a tiebreaker edge for the moment, over New England (7-2), which lost in Cleveland last week.
Such is the fine line sometimes, between success and either mediocrity or failure in the National Football League.
It’s a line that the Jets have been walking all season, partly because they’ve been playing from behind early in road games.
Once again, that was the case on Sunday, as the Browns, led by former head coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan (the brother of Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan), took first-half leads of 3-0, 10-3, and 13-10 before the Jets battled back each time.
For the fifth time this year, the Jets — whose defense has been good, yet not nearly as dominant as the league’s top defense it was last season — won despite allowing at least 20 points, thanks to their own resilience.
Cleveland got on the board first, taking the opening kickoff 69 yards on 11 plays in 5:01, settling for a 3-0 lead on 34-yard field goal by the Browns’ franchise-leading kicker in Phil Dawson.
New York immediately answered on the ensuing drive, going 33 yards on 9 plays in 3:59, to tie the game, 3-3, on a 27-yard field goal by kicker Nick Folk.
The Jets were then unable to capitalize on the first of two Browns’ turnovers. Running back Peyton Hillis (19 carries, 82 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble) coughed the ball up, but New York could gain only a yard before Folk missed a 48-yard field goal.
The teams then traded scoring drives, with the Browns marching 62 yards in just 5 plays, to score on 12-yard touchdown run by Hillis in the first quarter, and the Jets answering with Sanchez (27-44, 299 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 2 sacks) capping a 9-play, 76-yard drive on a 25-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (3 catches, 43 yards, 1 TD) in the second quarter.
Each team only touched the ball once more before halftime, with each scoring. The Browns took a 17-13 lead on a Dawson 23-yard field goal after 10-play 66-yard drive stalled at the Jets’ 5 yard-line. New York came right back with a nice 11-play, 80-yard drive in 4:50, to take a 17-13 halftime lead on a one-yard plunge by Sanchez with 23 seconds left in the first half.
The Jets held the Browns in check during a scoreless third quarter, limiting Cleveland to just 11 yards on 7 plays on two drives.
New York meanwhile, punted on one drive in the quarter after an earlier a long, methodical drive which yielded nothing. The Jets took the opening kickoff of the second half and traveled 60 yards on 10 plays in 9:58, only to have Folk miss a chip shot 24-yard field goal attempt.
In the fourth quarter, the Jets were able to sustain another long drive, going 56 yards on 13 plays in 7:45, with Folk redeeming himself by making a 25-yard kick to push New York’s lead to 20-13 with 2:42 left.
The Jets’ defense was unable to get the stop it needed to put the game away though, as Browns’ rookie quarterback Colt McCoy (18-31, 205 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks) directed 10-play, 59-yard drive in 1:51, tying the game, 20-20, on a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with 44 seconds left in regulation.
New York got won the coin toss to begin overtime, but punted quickly.
The Browns then appeared to be in great position to win after moving 28 yards on 6 plays and close to field goal range, but former Jets wide receiver Chansi Stuckey, after already picking up a first down, was stripped by Coleman while fighting for a few extra yards. The fumble was recovered by Jets’ cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
While the Jets couldn’t turn that into victory just yet, it prevented a good chance for the Browns to end the game, especially with a good kicker like Dawson on the sidelines.
Speaking of a kicker ending things, Folk got another opportunity, but missed his third kick of the game, pushing a 47-yard attempt wide right after the Jets took Stuckey’s fumble and went 35 yards on 9 plays in 5:13.
The Jets then forced a three-and-out but were pinned back at their own 9 yard-line with 3:06 left in the game, but Sanchez moved the Jets into Cleveland territory.
A holding penalty moved New York back to its own 46 yard-line, however, and on 3rd-and-14, Sanchez went for the win, but he was intercepted at the Browns’ 3 yard-line with 1:35 left by rookie first-round pick, cornerback Joe Haden, who made a game-high tackles while producing the Jets’ only turnover.
While not satisfied with a tie yet not wanting to risk a loss, the Browns weren’t in a position to be aggressive at that point. McCoy attempted a short pass to move the ball, but it fell incomplete. The Browns then rushed Hillis for two yards, before McCoy gladly took a sack after escaping a near game-ending safety in the end zone.
The Jets then took over at Cleveland 37 yard-line with 24 seconds left after an 18-yard return by Jim Leonhard.
They only needed one more play from there, which was a good thing for them, with time running out and Folk having already missed three field goals.
For the second straight week in overtime, Sanchez and Holmes made a late play to finish off a big win, as Sanchez hit Holmes (5 catches, game-high 76 yards, 1 TD) on a crossing route and the speedy receiver did the rest, blowing by the Browns’ defense and into the end zone on a 37-yard touchdown.
Giving Sanchez and the Jets’ passing game some nice balance, was a rushing game that outgained the Browns 172-107, while helping New York dominate the ball for 47:08 to Cleveland’s 27:36. The Jets were led by running backs Shonn Green (20-72), LaDanian Tomlinson (18-57), and out of the wildcat, Brad Smith (5 -39).
“You talk about how resilient this team is, that’s two road games in a row in overtime,” Rex Ryan said. What Ryan didn’t know at the time he uttered those words, was that the Jets had become the first team in NFL history to win consecutive overtime games on the road.
Once again, pulling out an improbable win.
The Jets will try to make things easier on themselves next week, when they host Houston (4-5) which has lost three straight.