It seems that for quarterback Mark Sanchez and his New York Jets to succeed, they must do things the hard way.
That trend continued on Sunday as Sanchez, who was largely average at best for most of the day, still threw a career-best four touchdown passes, including a 16-yard game-winner to wide receiver Santonio Holmes, with just 1:01 left, to beat the Buffalo Bills, 28-24, at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Sanchez’s ability to find the end zone often left the Bills’ defense seeing red – as in Sanchez’s good performance in the red zone, despite struggling outside of that area of the field.
The Jets’ victory typified the road they’ve traveled over the past two seasons during Sanchez’s first couple of years in the league.
New York backed into the playoffs in Sanchez’s rookie year, but reached the AFC title game as a five- seeded road warriors. Last season, the Jets got just as far as a six seed, again winning away from home in the postseason.
With first-place New England (8-3) holding a two-game lead over New York and the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of a regular season two-game sweep, the Jets will seemingly have to again follow the same wild-card route to reach the playoffs this year.
Sunday’s victory might go a long way toward helping the Jets get there, as New York (6-5) snapped a two-game losing streak and moved a game in front of their AFC East rival Bills (5-6), who lost their fourth straight game.
In typical Jets’ fashion, it wasn’t easy for New York to pull out a game that was tied three different times.
Even without its leading rusher (Fred Jackson, who entered the week as the NFL’s third leading rusher) missing his first game if the season with a broken fibula, the Bills dominated the time of possession (controlling the ball for 36:10 to the Jets’ 23:50) and were poised to steal a victory in the fourth quarter.
Sanchez (17-35, 180 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT, no sacks) meanwhile, was just 8-for-20, for 66 yards and an interception in the opening half, but he also threw two red zone touchdown passes in each half, and rebounded to go 9-for-15 in the second half, even if he was limited to a pedestrian 114 yards after halftime.
A rough start by Sanchez (as he misfired on his first four pass attempts while the Jets punted twice) led to the Bills taking the game’s first lead on their second possession, when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (26-39, 264 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 3 sacks) led Buffalo on the game’s longest drive (90 yards on 13 plays, in 8:47).
Fitzpatrick completed all six of his passes on the trip, which he ended with an 8-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver David Nelson (5 catches, 47 yards, 1 TD), to give the Bills a 7-0 lead with 1:38 left in the first quarter.
New York answered right back, going 78 yards on ten plays in 4½ minutes, tying the game, 7-7, on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to wide open tight end Dustin Keller (4 catches, team-high 62 yards, 2 TD) with 12:02 left in the first half.
The touchdown was set up by two big runs earlier in the drive – a 3rd-and-2 end-around run to the left by wide receiver Santonio Holmes that went for 23 yards on the final play of the first quarter, and an 18-yard rush by running back Shonn Green (13 carries, game-high 78 yards) on the next play.
The Bills then punted twice, and the Jets once, before Sanchez threw behind Holmes (2 catches, 22 yards, 1 TD) for a costly interception.
Cornerback Drayton Florence, who should have also picked off Sanchez one quarter earlier, undercut Holmes’ route and held onto the ball this time, and returned it seven yards to the New York 20-yard line.
Three plays later, Fitzpatrick threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Stevie Johnson (game-high 8 catches, 75 yards, 1 TD), to regain a 14-7 Buffalo lead with 2:06 to go in the half.
Johnson though, took his post-touchdown celebration too far, mocking the Jets’ running, full wing spanned flying motion before pretending to be shot in the leg and falling to the ground, taking a shot (no pun intended) at Jets’ wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who spent more than 20 months in prison after his gun accidentally went off in a New York City night club in 2008, as a member of the New York Giants.
A 15-yard penalty was called on Johnson, pushing the ensuing kickoff back to the Bills’ 20-yard line. Kicker Dave Rayner then miss-hit the ball, trying to kick it deep. The result was what looked like an onside kick that traveled only 16 yards and gave the Jets a short field at the Buffalo 36-yard line.
Another personal foul penalty, on Bills’ defensive end Marcell Dareus, added 15 yards to a seven-yard pass from Sanchez to Greene on the next play. Three plays later, Burress (4 catches, 54 yards, 1 TD) answered Johnson’s antics with a 14-yard touchdown reception from Sanchez to tie the game, 14-14, with 1:03 remaining in the half.
The Bills went nine plays on 39 yards in 6:06 to start the second half, but stalled and punted for a touchback.
Sanchez then completed all three of his passes (for 53 yards) on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard strike to Keller down the middle for a touchdown that gave New York its first lead, 21-14, with 3:50 left in the third quarter.
The advantage was brief though, as the Jets returned a Bills’ favor with their own miscue in the kicking game when Antonio Cromartie fumbled while filling in on a punt return for Jim Leonhard, who had the wind knocked out of him on an earlier tackle.
What would have been a Bills’ three-and-out ended up with a second chance at ironically, the Jets’ 36-yard line – giving Buffalo exactly the same length to go as New York had after Rayner’s short kickoff return in the second quarter.
Former Jet utility man Brad Smith (4 catches, team-high 77 yards, 1 TD) caught a 36-yard pass from Fitzpatrick on the next play to tie the game for a third time, 21-21, with 2:11 left in the period.
After New York went three-and-out while gaining no yards on three straight incompletions by Sanchez, the Bills went 47 yards on 14 plays in 6:52 to lead 24-21 on a 53-yard field goal by Rayner with 9:46 left in the game.
Each team then went three-and-out before Sanchez started his ninth career game-winning drive, taking the Jets 82 yards on 12 plays in 4:43.
Sanchez, who was just 11-for-27 before the drive started, completed six of eight passes for 61 yards to salvage the game and buoy his team’s playoff hopes.
“We have complete faith in Mark,” said Jets’ head coach Rex Ryan, who let 41-year-old backup Mark Brunell (no passes this year and only 43 over the past three seasons) take a few snaps with the first-team offense in an apparent effort re-focus an inconsistent Sanchez.
New York might have had to settle for a 53-yard game-tying field goal attempt if not for a brilliant catch by Burress, who spun around and made a terrific one-handed grab along the left sideline for an 18-yard gain to the Buffalo 18-yard line.
Two plays after that, Sanchez rolled to his right and threw on the run for a touchdown to a Holmes, who caught the ball along the right side of the end zone to close the scoring.
The Jets, whose previous win was an easy one (27-11) over the same Bills, in Buffalo, three weeks ago, still had to barely hang on after Holmes’ score.
However, perhaps bad karma was at play in stopping the Bills and Johnson, who couldn’t come up with a few last-minute chances deep in New York territory after Johnson’s earlier end zone distastefulness aimed at Burress.
On the game’s final drive (which started at the Bills’ 27-yard line), Johnson had a clear path to get inside the New York 15-yard line and perhaps just a few yards from scoring. But, even though a Fitzpatrick pass from the Jets’ 47-yard line was right in his hands, Johnson dropped what should have been an easy catch at the Jets’ 22-yard line.
After a couple of Fitzpatrick scrambles moved Buffalo to the New York 24-yard line, Fitzpatrick threw behind Johnson in the end zone. Reaching back, Johnson was able to get both hands on the ball but couldn’t hang on to it.
Two more incompletions – intended for Smith, and then for Johnson in the end zone, as time ran out – sealed the deal for New York.
With five weeks left in their regular season and currently tied with Denver (6-5) and Tennessee (6-5) for the final AFC’s two wild-card spots, the Jets will try to stay on the winning track next week, when they visit Washington (4-7) at 1 pm ET next Sunday.