EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Brad Smith’s left shoe popped off and he just kept running.
There was no way the New York Jets’ Mr. Do-It-All was going to slow down. Not with a clear path to the end zone ahead.
“I was running and trying to stick my shoe back on,” Smith said with a big grin, “but after a while, I just said, ‘Forget it.”‘
Who needs two anyway, right?
Smith’s one-shoed, 89-yard kickoff return sparked New York to a 26-10 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday night that sent the Jets to the second-best start in team history. The versatile wide receiver, a converted college quarterback, also had a 53-yard touchdown run.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Everything we ask him to do, he does.”
With or without all of his footwear.
“I think all that running in the backyard with no shoes on with my brother,” Smith said, “that helped.”
Hours after New England beat Detroit to improve to 9-2, New York matched the Patriots with its fourth straight victory to set up a meaty Monday night matchup Dec. 6 in Foxborough, Mass., for first place in the AFC East.
“The NFL couldn’t have scripted it better,” Jets safety Jim Leonhard said.
New York’s impressive start is eclipsed only by the 1986 squad that won 10 of its first 11. And the Jets did it by overcoming a sluggish first half and sending the struggling Bengals (2-9) to their eighth straight loss.
“We’re trying to make the most of it,” Bengals receiver Terrell Owens said. “It’s something different in every phase of the game every week. We find ways to put ourselves in the hole. I’m out of answers.”
It looked as though New York was headed for yet another frenzied finish. The Jets had consecutive road overtime victories followed by a nail-biter Sunday, when they scored the winning touchdown with 10 seconds left against Houston.
But it took New York only two plays to go ahead after halftime in this one. Mark Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes for 16 yards, then Smith used superb blocks by Dustin Keller and D’Brickashaw Ferguson to speed down the left sideline untouched for a 53-yard TD run.
“I would’ve felt sick if I didn’t score because of how well it was executed,” Smith said.
The Jets’ defense followed with a three-and-out, but Sanchez gave the ball back on an interception by Rey Maualuga.
“A terrible decision,” Sanchez said. “I should have sailed that into the stands and hit Fireman Ed.”
Maualuga’s 11-yard return to the Jets 37 put the Bengals in good shape, and they were aided by a 15-yard roughing-the-passer call against James Ihedigbo on fourth down.
Faced with another fourth down moments later, Cincinnati sent Aaron Pettrey out for a tying 27-yard field goal, but he was wide left.
Ihedigbo made up for his penalty on the Jets’ next drive when Steve Weatherford punted and officials ruled the ball hit Cincinnati’s Andre Caldwell. Ihedigbo recovered at the 14. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis surprisingly did not challenge the play.
“Three guys upstairs told me upstairs he touched the ball,” Lewis said.
After a 1-yard run by Shonn Greene, Sanchez found Holmes — his favorite target lately with four touchdowns in the last three games — in the end zone for a 17-7 lead.
“I should be doing backflips in here and celebrating,” Sanchez said. “But as a competitor I know we should have won this going away. We didn’t because of the poor play of the quarterback.”
Pettrey kicked a 28-yard field goal to make it a seven-point game with 12:33 remaining.
Smith took the ensuing kickoff, got a few big blocks and made a nice cutback before losing his shoe midway through the return.
“You want to be a catalyst when you’re on the field,” Smith said. “That’s what it’s really about that when you’re down a little bit, just being able to be a spark.”
Smith had three carries for 55 yards, a catch for 23 yards and the long kickoff return, accounting for 200 all-purpose yards.
“We call him ‘Slash,”‘ Ihedigbo said. “The guy can do anything he’s asked to do.”
About the only thing he didn’t do was throw a pass.
“I know,” Smith said, smiling. “Now that would’ve been sweet.”
Trevor Pryce sacked Carson Palmer in the end zone for a safety, making it 26-10 with 6:52 left. No overtime needed this time for the Jets, and no tense closing moments.
“At halftime, we talked about it,” running back LaDainian Tomlinson said. “And we said, ‘Guys, let’s stop messing around.”‘
New York has beaten Cincinnati three times in less than a year, including the regular-season finale that got the Jets into the playoffs, then in the wild-card game the following week.
It was another disappointing loss for the Bengals, who lost to Buffalo on Sunday in a game they led 31-14. They were outscored 35-0 in the second half.
“We’re just not winning games,” Palmer said, “and that’s as frustrating as it gets in this league.”
Palmer was 17 of 38 for 135 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, while Sanchez was 16 for 28 for 166 yards with the score and an interception.
The anticipated matchup between Cincinnati’s dynamic receiving duo of Owens and Chad Ochocinco and New York’s shutdown cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie finished decidedly in the Jets’ favor.
Owens had three receptions for 17 yards, while Ochocinco made four catches for 41 yards.
“No point in getting mad,” Ochocinco said. “We’re close. The score might not reflect it. But for a mishap here, a mishap there, we’re in this one.”
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