By Steve Lichtenstein
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I’ll take some whipped cream on my crow.
Not that I need any sweetener to the Jets’ improbable 30-28 victory Monday night over the suddenly devolving Falcons. It’s enough that I hadn’t seen the Jets come out on top in a game like that since their back-to-back playoff triumphs in Indianapolis and New England three seasons ago.
Huge underdogs. On the road. On national TV. Facing a team with a highly efficient quarterback—and one who rarely loses at home. Nearly a two-touchdown lead squandered in the fourth quarter.
Yet it was the Jets, led by rookie quarterback Geno Smith, who fought through all the adversity to win in the end on Nick Folk’s 43-yard field goal as the clock expired.
Based on what I had seen from the Jets in their first four games, I had them pegged as not ready for prime time. I was looking forward to watching their young talent grow, but I was also concerned they were in for some heavy beatdowns once they started facing the better teams. Their mishap-filled 38-13 loss last week in Tennessee, as well as a daunting near-term schedule, seemed to foreshadow a swoon of significant duration.
Hence the crow, which I will gladly chow down if it means I’ve just witnessed the turning point in the maturity of Gang Green.
The slew of turnovers that all season gifted the opposition easy points? Eliminated, as Smith concentrated on ball security, whether it was holding the ball close when he took off on a scramble or avoiding the forced throws downfield. All the senseless penalties that wrecked their drives and extended the time the Jets defense stayed on the field? Minimized, and only because the NFL makes it almost impossible to closely guard receivers without committing a foul.
As coach Rex Ryan stated in his post-game press conference, it wasn’t all about Smith — he had plenty of help from his young teammates. Tight end Jeff Cumberland found openings in the seams for big plays. Defensive linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson were disruptive forces all game. Cornerback Darrin Walls also had a nice rebound performance after his toasting in Tennessee last week.
Still, it almost wasn’t enough to beat the desperate (though maybe upon further review, overrated) Falcons, who chopped up the Jets defense all night with short passes from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones. If the Falcons hadn’t continually stepped on their own feet (a punt blocked, a strip-sack lost fumble, and coach Mike Smith’s incredulously ignorant commitment to his running game, including his passing up of a sure field goal on the last play of the first half to run Jacquizz Rodgers into the middle of the Jets line), Geno Smith might never have been given the opportunity to pull it out.
But Smith did have the ball in his hands with just under two minutes left, and he engineered the game-winning drive as if he had Ryan’s experience instead of that of a novice.
Again, Smith played with composure, not spooked by the clock. He took the underneath completions to his receivers to move into Falcons’ territory with a minute remaining before scrambling out of a pass rush to get into Folk’s outer field goal range.
Bilal Powell, who was part of a three-pronged Jets backfield that posted 118 yards on 5.4 yards per carry, got Folk even closer.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt confident in a Jets quarterback’s ability to lead a two-minute drill comeback. Mark Sanchez turned in a terrific run of late-game heroics three years ago, but his game has since deteriorated to the point where he became a liability once the Jets fell behind.
The Jets weren’t going anywhere until they found a quarterback who could perform under pressure.
Smith now has two game-savers on his short resume, as we also count the Opening Day victory over Tampa Bay made possible by linebacker Lavonte David’s brain cramp when he hit Smith late out of bounds just prior to Folk’s winning kick.
However this one, considering the hostile environment, ended any labeling of Smith’s early successes as flukes. Smith’s response from the thrashing he took for last week’s performance has reinforced the Jets brass’ decision to place their future in his big arm.
Sure, there’s always the chance we’ll see a relapse or three along the lengthy path to this season’s end. The Jets have to avoid looking past the winless Steelers when they invade the Meadowlands next week. It could easily turn into a trap game, with New England visiting the following week.
But having last night’s game under the Jets belt should ease the pain from such future failings.
The Jets are on their way to becoming a complete team, not one that needs its defense to hold the opposition to under 17 points to have a chance to win. With Smith, the Jets can stretch the field, which allows its unheralded backs to be more productive. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is starting to get the hang of balanced play-calling. (Though I wouldn’t mind if he tossed out the entire Wildcat section of the playbook. I screamed when Mornhinweg went empty backfield on second-and-4 with seven minutes remaining—who didn’t anticipate that sack of Smith? But I digress).
When the Jets play a clean game like last night, they can be competitive, which is more than most expected out of this roster.
There’s a long line for those who ordered crow this morning.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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