Both the Jets and Broncos showed signs of TNF fatigue tonight. They played a touchdown-free first half and put the ball in the other team's hands a few times throughout their Thursday Night Football matchup.
And when it was over, the Jets, despite major help fromf 54 minutes of Tim Tebow-stifling defense and offensive star Matt Slauson — yes, Slauson — failed to wipe the bad taste of Sunday night's loss to the Patriots out of their mouths. In fact, they added to it with their fall-from-ahead 17-13 loss to the Broncos at Sports Authority field at Mile High.
The game-winning touchdown was scored by — who else? — Tebow on a 20-yard keeper around left end, beating a Jets blitz to the punch with 58 seconds left.
"You've got to give credit to Denver and their quarterback," said head coach Rex Ryan. "Tebow made the play to win the game. We thought that play was coming, but we never got it defended. That's what happens when you get a good athlete, a big, strong guy like that."
The Jets got the ball back at their 14 with 54 seconds on the clock, two timeouts left, and a four-point deficit. On third down, LB Von Miller roared over RT Wayne Hunter to sack Mark Sanchez at the 18 to set up fourth-and-19. Sanchez hit Patrick Turner with a 25-yard completion over the middle to the 43 and the Jets had to burn their final timeout with 27 seconds left.
But a completion in the field of play to McKnight forced a Sanchez spike with seven seconds left at the Denver 44 and one last gasp. But his Hail Mary fling for Plaxico Burress in the end zone fell to the ground and the game was over.
"I don't want to sound like a broken record, but we made too many mistakes to win the game," said Ryan. "Turning the ball over on special teams is a killer. An interception for a touchdown is a killer. We played a great game on defense, then gave up a big play on our mistake."
With their second straight loss and fourth defeat in five road games, the Jets fell to 5-5 and now get 10 days to rest up, rejuvenate their minds and bodies, lick their wounds and prepare to play their next AFC East foe, the Bills, at MetLife Stadium a week from Sunday.
"We're .500, and that's not Jets football," said Hunter. "It's not the way we played the last two years, and it just doesn't feel right."
Before the endgame scenario, Slauson loomed as one of the most unlikely of Jets offensive heroes. He plunged a yard into the end zone with the ball after rookie Bilal Powell fumbled in the shadow of the Denver goalposts. It was only the sixth TD return/recovery of an offensive fumble in franchise history and only the second by an offensive lineman and it put the Jets ahead, 10-3, four minutes into the second half.
"I didn't know what to think," Slauson said. "I felt like a big, dumb animal — 'Oh, the ball.' I grabbed it and rolled into the end zone. ... It was awesome at the time, but it doesn't mean anything now. I wish it would've."
Then CB André Goodman picked off Sanchez's errant throw and returned it for a 26-yard touchdown with 4:25 to play in the third quarter.
"It's really tough to swallow this defeat because we came in here with high expectations," Hunter said. "You can't blame Mark. I mean, when it comes down to it, it's our job as a line, fullbacks, tight ends, running backs, to give Mark protection, to give him some time. I know crap rolls downhill and it always ends up on Mark, but it shouldn't happen that way. It starts up front with us."
Then Joe McKnight appeared to be off and running on another excellent return, except that he fumbled at the end of it and Cassius Vaughn recovered for the home side at the Jets 42.
But at that point the defense wasn't letting Tebow, Willis McGahee and company go anywhere in this game. After yet another punt, Sanchez mounted a 10-play, 42-yard drive to Folk's 45-yard field goal and a 13-10 lead with 9:14 to play. The drive was fueled by a second successful Sanchez-to-McKnight screen, this one for 14 yards to convert third-and-9.
When the Broncos got the ball back again with 5:54 to play, after an Eddie Royal fair catch at his 5 of a nifty T.J. Conley drop punt, they had just 134 yards of offense. But of course, they also had Tebow at the controls, and one thing he's been great at in leading Denver to three wins in four games coming into tonight was late-game heroics.
"People can laugh about this or whatever, but this is a hard offense to defend," said Ryan. "You've got to have your rules and play by them."
And Tebow picked up his offense, leading them out from their 5 to across midfield and to a first down at the Jets 26 before his scoring scramble.
"It's frustrating," said S Eric Smith. "To play like that the whole game and have it come down to one drive at the end, it's just frustrating, upsetting."
Close-to-the-Vest First Half
The Jets won the opening coin toss and deferred their choice of returning the kickoff until the second half. That gave Nick Folk the opportunity to extend his kickoff touchback streak in Denver, which he did, sending his kick out of the end zone to make it six TBs in a row.
The Broncos opened with a 28-yard Tebow pass to Demaryius Thomas against Antonio Cromartie, then reverted to form with Tebow running the option, shovel passing and handing off to Willis McGahee. That worked until the home team reached the visitors 20 and faced fourth-and-inches. They went for it but McGahee was stopped by David Harris.
The Jets went 3-and-out, Conley hit a 13-yard punt off the side of his foot and the Broncs were back at the Jets 34. But the defense held on five plays, which included a direct snap, an end-around and a wobbly Tebow pass that Eric Decker couldn't control falling out of bounds, so Matt Prater came in for a 37-yard field goal to give Denver a 3-0 lead with 5:08 left in the first quarter.
The Green & White came to life on their next drive as Shonn Greene ran for one first down, then Sanchez-to-Santonio Holmes on the next play moved the chains again. A Sanchez fade to Burress got a flag on S Brian Dawkins for a blow to the head and the Jets were in Broncos territory.
And soon they left that territory without a score. Holmes' third-down conversion reception was reversed into an incompletion after John Fox's challenge by ref Bill Leavy, and Folk's long-distance kickoff magic didn't extend to his 52-yard field goal, which sailed wide left.
But the Jets were quickly back in business when McGahee was stripped by Calvin Pace and Bart Scott recovered for his first fumble recovery since Game 5 last year vs. Minnesota. The offense moved into the red zone early in the second quarter, then came to rest on fourth down at the Denver 3 after rookie Bilal Powell's first pro contribution, a 7-yard reception. Folk put this one through from 21 yards out and it was tied at 3-3 with 12:04 left in the first half.
Vaughn jolted the home fans to life with a 66-yard kickoff return ended by Donald Strickland's saving tackle from behind at the Jets 35. But the defense rose up with its first of six three-and-out of the night.
After another exchange of punts, the Jets started to drive toward midfield, with the help of a dandy Burress tippy-toe sideline grab that Fox challenged but lost on. But then a rarity: on third down Nick Mangold unleashed an errant shotgun snap. Sanchez chased it down but lost 24 yards of field position and the Jets punted again.
Again the defense pitched a three-and-out, its third straight, and the Jets tried one last time to muster a scoring drive in the half's final minute. They got only close enough for Folk to try a 61-yard field goal. Had he hit it, he would've broken the franchise record he set last year when he hit from 56 yards at this same stadium. But the kick faded left and the teams went in tied at 3-3.
McKnight led the Jets in rushing with 59 yards on 16 carries and also in receptions with six, for 62 yards. Greene was rocked in the first quarter after a reception and did not return. "I took a knee to my ribs," he said. "I thought it was a helmet at first, but I saw the replay. It was still sore later but this is football. I was ready to go. ... Joe was doing good. I was ready to go if they needed me."
G Randy Rasmussen was the only other O-lineman in franchise history besides Slauson to score a TD with an offensive fumble. He pounced on RB Cliff McClain's fumble in the 1972 home opener vs. Miami. The last offensive fumble return TD by the Jets was by WR Bobby Jones off a Mike Augustyniak fumble vs. Buffalo in 1981.
The Jets held the Tebow Broncos to 85 yards of first-half offense. That's the third time this season (Jacksonville and Buffalo) and the 10th time in three seasons of Ryan/Mike Pettine defense that the Jets have yielded less than 100 first-half yards. ... Sanchez finished 24-for-40 for 252 yards, Tebow 9-for-20 for 104 yards. ... Calvin Pace got the only sack of Tebow, a shoveout for zero yards. But it still counts and it gave Pace the team lead with 4.0 sacks.
The Broncos lead the overall series between these teams, 17-15-1, and the series in Denver, 10-8. ... The Jets came into the game with the second-best record since Thursday night games began in 2006, with their 3-0 trailing only Indianapolis' 4-0 mark. Pittsburgh is 4-1 in Thursday primetime. ... Jets' gamenight captains were Emanuel Cook, Marquice Cole, Josh Baker, Bilal Powell and Eron Riley. Powell and Riley made their pro debuts.