It hasn't always been a pretty season and today's game didn't start out pretty, either.
But the Jets roused themselves in the second quarter, and then, with some help from their equally riled up fans and some less-celebrated players stepping into starring roles, Rex Ryan's club roared from behind to defeat the Cleveland Browns, 24-13, at MetLife Stadium in their eighth and last home game of the 2013 season.
The win was a great way to celebrate an unusual day of "winter" weather around 70° in the days before Christmas, not to mention rumors swirling around Ryan's job situation. But we used a similarly hot closing kick to finish 6-2 at home on the year and improve to 7-8 overall as we head to Miami next week to try to close the year at .500, and that was fine by the head coach.
"I've said this all season long: My job is to focus on the present and what's right now," Ryan said after his record improved to 24-16 in his five home seasons as Green & White coach. "The immediate thing is, guess what? We're going to enjoy this one and the players are getting a Victory Monday. ... I know I have a job to do this week and I'm going to do it to the very best of my ability."
First and foremost among those stars who performed at the tops of their games today was CB Dee Milliner, who overcame his rollercoaster rookie season to register his first pro interception and defense five passes in all, many of them intended for Browns WR Josh Gordon, the league's receiving-yardage leader.
"It felt great, man," Milliner told ESPN New York 98.7FM right after the game. "I finally got one." Later in the locker room he added, "It's been up and down. I just try to go out there and try to get better each week."
"I've seen a few players come down the road in my day," Ryan said. "This guy right here is going to be an outstanding player, there's n o question."
Then on offense there was WR David Nelson's career-high two touchdown catches. And QB Geno Smith did his part well, finding Nelson for those two strikes and more as he completed 20 of 36 passes for 214 yards, no INTs, fumbles or sacks, and led the way in converting at a near-historic-rate on third downs (12-for-18).
"That was extremely important in this game," Smith said of the conversions. "When we were in manageable third downs, we had an opportunity to convert those and ultimately I think it led to us putting up some points."
RB Chris Ivory (109 rush yards) and Bilal Powell (80 scrimmage yards) took turns pounding the Cleveland defense and Jeremy Kerley added a team-high 70 yards on five catches.
Defensively, Milliner got lots of help on the pass rush against Jason Campbell, led by Calvin Pace's first sack of the game and 10th of the season, joining Muhammad Wilkerson (10.5 sacks) as our first 10-sack tandem since Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau in 1981.
Even though we turned on the jets midway through the second quarter, it took a while to break up a 10-10 tie in the second half. Nick Folk missed only his second field goal of the season, banging a 49-yarder off the right upright with 7:09 left in the third quarter.
But then came the breakthrough, a 14-play, 81-yard, 6:28 grind-it-out drive, which ended with Smith's bullet to Nelson in the left corner of the end zone 46 seconds into the final period. It gave us our first lead of the game at 17-10.
"Those are two plays we've been practicing for six weeks. We just hadn't been able to put them in the game plan yet," Nelson said of his two scoring grabs, adding that coordinator Marty Mornhinweg "felt comfortable with it this week and it just happened to pay off."
Fozzy Whittaker returned the ensuing kickoff near midfield and the Browns strode back down inside the Jets 10, where they had spent a little too much time in the first half. But another deep-red-zone stop forced the visitors to settle for Billy Cundiff's 21-yard FG to make it 17-13 with 9:40 to play.
Then another 80-yard drive, our third (not including a 79-yarder) of the last three quarters, was crowned by Smith's third-down scramble up the middle for a 17-yard TD — his fifth rushing score of the season, all coming at home — for that 24-13 margin with 3:19 left.
The Browns (4-11) got no closer than the Jets 41 before Campbell threw his second pick of the game and Ed Reed got his second interception as a Jet and his 63rd theft as a pro, moving into a sixth-place tie on the NFL's all-time INT list.
Late-Starting First Half
The first roughly 22½ minutes of the game looked like a Green & White washout as the Browns opened a 10-0 lead and held advantages of almost 2-to-1 in both yardage and possession time. But from there we shook off our doldrums and marched smartly on two long drives to tie the score at 10-10 at the half.
First came an 80-yard drive to Smith's 6-yard pass on third-and-goal to Nelson in the back of the end zone. It was Nelson's first TD as a Jet — his first NFL score, in fact, since 2011, when he scored for the Bills against the Jets at MetLife. Big plays on the drive were Smith's 22-yarder to Jeremy Kerley on third-and-12 and Chris Ivory's 21-yard bolt off right tackle.
Richardson returned to the defense from his injury as the defense forced the visitors into their second 3-and-out. And with 34 seconds to go, Smith & Co. perambulated 79 yards more to Folk's franchise-record-setting 21-yard field goal at 0:00 to tie it.
The record was for the longest home field goal streak, with Folk making it 20-for-20 to snap the tie he was in with Pat Leahy (1985-86) and Nick Lowery (1994-96). And it was made possible with Bilal Powell's career-long 39-yard run on the first play of the possession.
"That was a momentum-builder for us," Folk said of his record-setter and game-tyer. "To just get points on the board and even it up at that point was just great for the team.
"I feel comfortable here at MetLife. I feel for the most part it's a good stadium to kick in. I enjoy playing here. And now maybe we can get a couple of more this coming more this week at Miami and end the season on a hot note."