It ironically took a visit to a tough place to play, against a first-place team with a good defense, for the New York Jets to finally make a couple of return trips to a place they hadn’t been in a while.
That place was the end zone, which the Jets hadn’t visited since Thanksgiving.
And, it was the same place the Jets had to keep the Pittsburgh Steelers out of, in the final seconds at Heinz Field on Sunday.
Just going to a site where they had never won (0-7 all-time) seemed like one of the last road trips the Jets would want to take while trying to right their season, coming off two bad losses, and a week of dealing with an NFL investigation (over last week’s Sal Alosi “Tripgate” scandal).
But, the Jets (10-4) were able to put a rough couple of weeks behind them, and rallied from a seven-point third-quarter deficit in light snow, to upset the Steelers (10-4), 22-17, at Heinz Field on Sunday, and get back on track toward their playoff push.
Shaking off a 17-for-44 performance in a home loss to Miami last week, Jets’ quarterback Mark Sanchez (19-29, 170 yards, 0TS, 0 INT, 1 sack) led two second-half scoring drives – one to tie the game, and another to put New York ahead to stay – before the Jets’ defense held on to keep the Steelers out of the end zone on the game’s final play.
New York got off to a great start thanks to Brad “Swiss Army Knife” Smith, whose nickname represents the utility player’s ability to do a little bit of everything on the field.
This time, the big-play Smith returned the game’s opening kickoff 97 yards, to put the Jets ahead, 7-0, just twelve seconds into the game.
The score broke a string of 122 minutes and 42 seconds since the Jets’ previous touchdown, also on a kickoff return by Smith, three games ago, during a Thanksgiving night win over Cincinnati.
It would stay that way until the Steelers tied the game, 7-7, with 7:29 left in the first half, on a 9-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (23-44, 264 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks – two by cornerback Drew Coleman), to tight end Matt Spaeth (3 catches, 27 yards, 1 TD), who was filling in for injured star tight end Heath Miller. The play capped a long, 16-play, 96-yard drive that consumed 8:12.
The Jets answered, traveling 56 yards, on 9 plays, to take a 10-7 lead on a 25-yard field goal by kicker Nick Folk, with 2:48 left in the half.
The Steelers though, went 53 yards, on 10 plays, to tie the game again, 10-10, on a 42-yard field goal by kicker Shaun Suisham, 33 seconds before halftime.
Pittsburgh then took the opening kickoff of the second half and took its only lead of the game, going 9 plays and 74 yards, in 5:55, to go ahead, 17-10, on two-yard touchdown run by running back Rashard Mendenhall (17 carries for a game-high 100 yards).
The Jets though, scored on each of their next two possessions, to lead for good.
Sanchez capped a 66-yard, 8-play drive with a brilliant fake. Sanchez got the whole Steeler defense to bite on a fake hand-off up the middle. With the defense distracted, Sanchez rolled out to his left, and walked untouched, into the end zone, to tie the game, 17-17, with 5:14 to go in the third quarter.
The trickery pulled off nicely by Sanchez, ended a streak of 185 minutes and 37 seconds since the Jets’ last offensive touchdown, also in the win over Cincinnati.
Then, after the Jets’ defense forced a punt, Sanchez marched New York 50 yards on 13 plays, in 6:47, for a Folk field goal that put the Jets ahead, 20-17, with 10:07 left in the game.
Jets’ punter Steve Weatherford, who had three punts downed inside the Steelers’ 20 yard-line, set up the final points of the game, with a punt to the Pittsburgh 1 yard-line.
On the next play, running back Mewelde Moore was tackled before he could get out of the end zone, by linebacker Jason Taylor, for the Jets’ second safety in four games, to put New York ahead, 22-17, with 2:38 remaining.
The Jets then took the ensuing free kick and went three-and-out, taking just 28 seconds off the clock before punting.
Pittsburgh drove 82 yards to the New York 10 yard-line, with nine seconds left.
But, Roethlisberger threw incomplete over the middle with two seconds left, and then, under pressure, rolled left, and threw incomplete, looking for Spaeth in the left side of the end zone on the game’s final play.
Answering critics who started talk of another late-season Jet collapse after two straight losses, the Jets’ always outspoken head coach, Rex Ryan, sarcastically said after the game, “Same old Jets, we come to Pittsburgh and get a win.”
With emboldened playoff hopes, the Jets will travel to Chicago next week, to face the Bears (9-4), who will first play the Vikings, on Monday night, in the first outdoor game in Minnesota since 1981, after the Vikings’ Metrodome roof imploded under heavy snow and ice last week.
New York would clinch a playoff berth next week under any of the following scenarios: a win or tie in Chicago, a loss or tie by Indianapolis, a loss or tie by Jacksonville, or a Kansas City loss coupled with a San Diego win or tie.
The Jets also remain a longshot for the AFC’s top playoff seed. To earn that, the Jets need to win twice and see two losses by New England along with either a Baltimore loss or two Pittsburgh wins.