By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the postgame news conference following the Jets’ 19-16 nail-biter of a win on Saturday night in Arlington, head coach Todd Bowles extolled his team’s “growth.”
From the context, Bowles was referring to his team’s character, which allowed Gang Green to overcome a sloppy effort during the first three quarters against an admittedly inferior opponent to escape with a crucial victory that kept their playoff hopes alive. Until the 9-5 Jets’ 23-20 overtime win over the Giants two weeks ago, the Jets weren’t exactly known as a team capable of positive responses to adversity.
However, I also think you can take Bowles’ comment in a more literal sense.
For so long, the Jets flew as far as their big guns — Chris Ivory, Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker on offense; Muhammad Wilkerson, David Harris and Darrelle Revis on defense — took them.
While many of the above had moments of impact on Saturday night, it was a crew of the less-heralded players who stepped up to decide the game.
Bilal Powell, Erin Henderson, Quincy Enunwa, Kenbrell Thompkins and Marcus Williams aren’t at the top of their respective positions on the Jets’ depth chart, but Gang Green wouldn’t have prevailed without their contributions.
And that — the development of a full roster one-through-53 — is as much a sign of a team on the rise as the ability to win ugly against a 4-10 team like the Cowboys.
It’s also what you need to beat a team like the Patriots, who venture into MetLife Stadium next weekend for the Jets’ most important home game since they crushed the vacationing Bengals, 37-0, to clinch a berth in the 2009 postseason.
New England routinely takes away its oppositions’ top weapons. In the Patriots’ 30-23 victory earlier in the season, they made a concerted effort to keep Ivory and Marshall in check.
Powell was inactive in that game, the first of four he missed due to an injured ankle. Since his return, the often-forgotten backup running back has somehow seemed faster.
On Saturday he extended his touchdown streak to three games with a 12-yard burst up the middle in the final minute of the first quarter. Powell accumulated 79 yards from scrimmage, upping his output to 269 yards over the last three games.
Powell’s score was one of a few Jet highlights in a first half marked by lowlights — penalties, a missed PAT, a missed field goal and two dreadful play calls by offensive coordinator Chan Gailey in short-yardage situations.
To add to the Jets’ woes, Harris — the middle linebacker of whom Bowles said earlier this week, “I don’t think we can function on defense if David wasn’t playing right now” — was lost for the game after incurring a back contusion in the first quarter.
Henderson was forced into action and played a season-high 46 of the team’s 57 defensive snaps, per ESPN.com. While Cowboys running back Darren McFadden gave the Jets fits with 100 yards rushing on just 16 carries, his big gains mostly resulted from his speed advantage to beat linebacker Demario Davis on the outside.
The bottom line was that the Jets’ defense did its job, even with the caveat that it was against a team that needed to send in Kellen Moore to make his professional quarterbacking debut in the second quarter when starter Matt Cassel’s atrocities at the position were no longer deemed tolerable by Dallas coach Jason Garrett. The Jets limited the Cowboys to just one touchdown drive — and that was abetted by a horrendous horse-collar penalty called on Jets linebacker Calvin Pace — while forcing four turnovers.
Still, the Jets’ bumbling of earlier scoring opportunities resulted in a 13-9 deficit after three quarters. On the Jets’ first possession of the fourth quarter, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick faced a third-and-14 from Dallas’ 27-yard line. In these situations, Fitzpatrick typically targets either Marshall or Decker. After all, the duo officially passed Al Toon and Wesley Walker on Saturday to become the franchise’s most prolific wide receiving tandem.
However, when Fitzpatrick stepped up in the pocket, he found Enunwa open in the middle of the field. The throw was behind the first-year receiver, who had to turn his body to make a clutch 24-yard reception. The conversion set up a short touchdown toss to Decker that gave the Jets a 16-13 lead.
Fitzmagic wasn’t finished shocking the Cowboys with misdirection. After Dallas tied the score on Dan Bailey’s 50-yard field goal at the two-minute warning, Fitzpatrick unleashed a 43-yard bomb down the right sideline to waiver-wire pickup Thompkins, who was only activated because rookie receiver Devin Smith suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
Thompkins’ grab gave the Jets the field position they needed to regain the lead. Kicker Randy Bullock redeemed his earlier shanks by booting a 40-yard field goal. The Jets then held on when reserve cornerback Williams intercepted a deflected Hail Mary from Moore in the direction of Dallas star receiver Dez Bryant.
It was Williams’ team-leading sixth interception of the season. That’s more than starters Revis (four) and Antonio Cromartie (none) have combined.
It’s that kind of reliance on depth that has made this Jets season so much more than whether or not they can sneak into the playoffs past Kansas City or Pittsburgh.
After the John Idzik Error ended with a 4-12 thud a year ago, it was important for rookie general manager Mike Maccagnan and rookie coach Bowles to fortify almost every position. There’s still a long way to go, but the current gap between the Jets and the better teams in the AFC is much closer than I expected it would be.
There’s no denying that the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick marriage is the foundation of the Patriots’ success, but it’s their ability to continually find and develop players to plug every hole that makes it impossible to ever count them out no matter how banged up they get.
If you don’t believe me, here’s further proof: New England won 11 games with Cassel as its starting quarterback in 2008.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.