The Thanksgiving night crowd at New Meadowlands Stadium was really into their favorite team's latest primetime outing. But the Jets, especially on offense, weren't returning the love. They went in after a frustrating first halftime trailing Cincinnati, 7-3, to the sound of boos.
But a late holiday start is better than no start at all. The Jets opened the third quarter with a bang louder than a deep-fried-turkey explosion. Its name was Brad Smith and it led the way to a 26-10 victory over the Bengals for the Jets' first Thanksgiving victory in 49 years and their ninth win in 11 games this season to set up a monster of a matchup in Foxboro, Mass., a week from Monday night.
"I love the resolve of our team," head coach Rex Ryan said after the 9-2 mark — the second-best after 11 games in franchise history — allowed his team to keep pace with New England, which pulled away from Detroit earlier in the day. "Today it was Brad Smith, special teams and defense that got it done. At halftime I just believed momentum was heading our way."
Momentum arrived in the 6'2", 212-pound body of Smith. His first eruption was a 53-yard end-around just touchdown burst 47 seconds into the third quarter. His second was an 89-yard kickoff return TD — the last 50 yards or so covered after he threw his left shoe — with 12:18 to play. Sandwiched in between was the fourth TD connection between Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes in the last three games.
"It's exciting," said Smith, who had the second 200-all-purpose-yards game of his career with 200 yards on the nose. "This is such a blessing to be able to play this game and have these opportunities."
Smitty on offense and special teams was aided by the Green & White defense, which allowed only 163 yards to the Bengals. Another Smith — Eric Smith — came up big in his first start for a healthy Brodney Pool at safety, leading the home side with eight tackles, all solos, while Jim Leonhard and Antonio Cromartie came up with the unit's first interceptions in seven games.
"No, it did not feel weird," LB Calvin Pace, who got the first of three second-half sacks of Carson Palmer, said of not having to resort to a fantastic finish tonight. "It felt like where we need to be. It was great to see us taking victory formation at the end of the game. That's what we need. That's a start."
Smith, whose 8.0-yard average leads the NFL for all rushers with at least 20 carries, burst off the left side of the Jets offense in between sealing blocks by TE Dustin Keller and WR Braylon Edwards, beating several Bengals to the left pylon for the second-longest run of his career, behind only last year's 57-yarder at the old Meadowlands venue against these same Bengals.
Cincinnati appeared to still be in the game, turning a Sanchez interception — "Terrible, terrible. Very selfish," the QB said about not throwing the ball away — and controversial fourth-down James Ihedigbo roughing-the-passer penalty into a 27-yard field goal try by rookie Aaron Pettrey.
But Pettrey was wide left and things began to snowball for the Jets and unravel for the Bengals. Another controversial call by referee Mike Carey's crew — that Cincinnati's Andre Caldwell touched a Steve Weatherford punt that Ihedigbo pounced on at the Bengals 14 — led two plays later to the Sanchez-to-Holmes success and a 17-7 lead that the hosts took into the fourth quarter.
"Three guys upstairs told me he touched the ball," Lewis said. "If you know he touched the ball, why would it be worth the challenge?"
The Jets were uneven again but still dropped their friends the Stripes to 2-9. The Jets have now beaten the Bengals four straight games, including January's AFC Wild Card Game, nine of the last 10, and nine in a row at the Meadowlands, old or new stadium. And in the last two games, the Bengals have outscored their opponents in first halves, 38-17, but have been outscored in second halves, 58-3.
The defense put a cherry on top of its late Thanksgiving feast by scoring a safety when DT Trevor Pryce sacked Palmer in the end zone for a safety with 6:52 to play.
One of the themes immediately after the game was about how quickly the Jets will shift their focus to the next game on the schedule — the hotter-than-ever Jets-Patriots rivalry, this time with both teams at 9-2, playing for control of the AFC East on Monday night, Dec. 6. Ryan, no surprise, is ready to roll.
"That team, I give them their props. They look pretty darn good right now," the coach said. "I think they've won 25 straight at home and we've won eight straight on the road. We plan on making it nine. It's going to be tough but we're just the men for the job."
But most of the Jets said after playing two games in five days and three in 12, they just wanted to rest through this "mini-bye weekend" ahead before diving into the Patriots.
"Not yet," said LB Jason Taylor. "I'm all about eating turkey tonight, getting fat, working the pounds off the next couple of days, then coming back Monday and getting into the Patriots."
The rivalry will be waiting when the Jets return.
The 163 yards allowed by the defense was the least in a game since allowing 72 yards to the Bengals in Game 16 last season. ... The 46 rushing yards allowed was the D's best since giving up 43 at Tampa Bay in Game 13 last year. ... Cedric Benson, who slashed for 169 yards on 21 carries in the AFC Wild Card Game at Cincinnati, didn't get off to as nice a start tonight — his first four carries all went for zero yards — and finished 18-for-41.
The Jets' last interception before Leonard's second-quarter theft was Dwight Lowery's game-sealer late in Game 5 vs. Minnesota. ... The only other time the Jets had gone six games without an INT was the final six games in 1979. ... One of the strangest stat lines of Taylor's career: no tackles, no sacks, three pass defenses.
The Jets rushed for 170 yards, with Shonn Greene's 70 on 18 carries leading the way. ... Smith's KOR score was the second of his career and the Jets' 13th in the last nine seasons. ... Jets were penalized eight times for 64 yards, Bengals 2-for-25. ... The last time the Jets lost to Cincinnati at home, their home was Shea Stadium. In the Jets' home opener in 1981, the Bengals prevailed, 31-30. ... A total of 78,903 tickets were distributed for this game, the first home Thanksgiving game in franchise history since the 1962 Titans beat the Bills at the Polo Grounds.