It was a night filled with trembling voices and teary eyes as the Jets, the Cowboys, the NFL and NBC observed the 10th anniversary of September 11th beforehand and at halftime of the teams' Sunday night season opener at MetLife Stadium.
And when the night turned to football, only one of those teams could stand taller on this biggest of stages. That team was the Green & White, although it took them almost every available minute to seal the deal.
The Jets got two touchdown passes from Mark Sanchez, one to Dustin Keller and one to Plaxico Burress — his first in almost three seasons — plus a punt blocked by Joe McKnight and returned by just activated Isaiah Trufant, then Darrelle Revis' first interception since the 2009 playoffs. All of that set up Nick Folk for his game-winning 50-yard field goal down Broadway with 27 seconds to play for their stirring 27-24 triumph.
Further, the win equaled the second-largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history. What a way to put the finishing touches on an emotional night for New York City and the metro area.
"I'm just so proud that we were able to pull this thing out," said Rex Ryan, now 2-1 in season openers as the Jets' head coach.
"It was a perfect ending," said Keller. "You couldn't write it any better."
Much of the evening was looking like a depressing script mirroring the Jets' first regular-season game ever played in this stadium a year ago, when they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in primetime, 10-9. But this rousing triumph helped put teeth into the Jets' offseason slogan to "Bring It Home" for the playoffs by winning more games — a lot more games — at home during the regular season.
And the Jets made no bones before the game or after that they had some extra incentive on their side for this particular opener.
"I just wanted to give consistent effort, and all the effort went to all the heroes, all the men and women that serve this country," said LB Bart Scott, who gave a fiery performance in posting a team-high eight tackles, his first sack in 12 games and a couple of tackles for loss. "This one didn't always go the way we wanted it to go, but it was all about competing, about giving yourself a chance."
Romo, who finished 23-for-36 for 342 yards, was sharp for the first three quarters of the game, including on his second touchdown pass, a 36-yarder that WR Miles Austin wrestled away from Antonio Cromartie as the two tumbled across the goal line. That put the visitors ahead, 17-7, with 8:05 left in the third quarter.
From there Sanchez, who caught a little fire on the first half's two-minute drive to his 4-yard TD throw to Keller, led the Jets to Folk's first field goal of the night and they were within 17-10 with 19 minutes remaining.
Then the hosts got the ball back and Sanchez had just hit Plaxico Burress with his first reception since November 2008. But no sooner did a warm ovation from the fans die down than Sanchez underthrew a seam route for Keller, with LB Sean Lee returning it into the shadow of the goal line on the last play of the third quarter. The play was ruled a touchdown, reviewed and changed to out-of-bounds inside the 1. On the second play of the final frame, Felix Jones took the toss left for that yard and the Jets were staring at a 24-10 hole.
"Fourteen points in this league, you think you have no chance," said Keller. Indeed, the Green & White have overcome only two fourth-quarter deficits of 14 or more points in franchise history.
But they set to work on No. 3. And Sanchez made it suddenly interesting when he hit Burress on a fade over CB Bryan McCann with 11:56 left to make it 24-17.
It was Plax's first touchdown reception since Nov. 9, 2008, for the Giants at Philadelphia, and his first Meadowlands TD since Oct. 19, 2008, vs. San Francisco.
No sweat for Romo, who led the Cowboys back to the Jets 4 with a 64-yard pitch-and-catch with TE Jason Witten, who finished with six catches for 110 yards. But the drama thickened when, on third down, Romo was forced to scramble by David Harris, fumbled when hit by Mike DeVito and recovered by Sione Pouha. Disaster averted.
"You just have to go in there and fight for it," said Pouha, who has demonstrated a penchant for having the ball come to him on opening night — he recovered two fumbles that last opener vs. the Ravens. "You just keep fighting, man. That's all that matters."
But first the Jets had to find a way to tie things. Sanchez, near midfield, was strip-sacked= from behind by Mike Jenkins, with S Danny McCray recovering. Six minutes remained and the Cowboys again had the ball.
But the Jets held firm, the 'Pokes set themselves back with two 5-yard penalties, and finally Mat McBriar dropped back to punt. But his kick was rejected by a diving Joe McKnight coming unblocked up the middle off the Jets' left-side overload. Isaiah Trufant, just activated from the practice squad to the active roster on Saturday, took the bouncing ball 18 yards and MetLife erupted as the Jets had finally caught the Cowboys at 24-24 with five minutes left.
"You try to take advantage of every opportunity," said Trufant, who scored the Jets' first blocked-punt return TD at home since Chris Burkett in 1991. "You hear that thud of the ball, then my eyes lit up. I picked up on the first or second bounce. Then all I saw was the green and the cheering."
The stage was set for this next Jets fantastic finish. The Jets couldn't get out of their own end and with a minute remaining it looked as if this emotionally charged game was getting ready to head for overtime. But on the next play, Romo tried to get the ball to Dez Bryant but as Ryan said, D-coordinator Mike Pettine had "the call of the day" when he disguised the coverage on Bryant and Romo threw the ball right to Revis, who returned it to the Cowboys 34.
The Jets offense moved little but Folk moved the Jets in front for the first time and most important time when he calmly drove the 50-yarder down the middle against the team that cut their one-time Pro Bowl kicker during the 2009 season.
"I hit it really well," said Folk, who hit his third 50-yarder as a Jet. "I hit it just about as good as I could. I just trusted myself tonight, made sure it looked just like an extra point and put it down the middle."
"We kind of emulate what this city is all about," said Burress, who had four catches for 72 yards and his TD in his long-awaited return game, "just sticking together, being resilient through everything that was going on."
"We haven't played our best ball yet," said Revis, who had his first pick since the '09 AFC Divisional Round win at San Diego. "We did escape one, but I'll say one thing. We did show heart at the end. We showed heart and toughness and we fought back."
As all the Jets know this morning, you don't want to have to win all your games with heart and toughness and comeback effort. But it sure makes Monday's corrections a lot easier to take as the Jets begin preparation for next Sunday's home game against the 1-0 Jaguars.
Sanchez's 335-yard game was the third 300-yard passing game of his career and his second at home. The first one came in the last-second comeback vs. the Texans in this same stadium last season. ... Besides Burress, Derrick Mason had his first three receptions as a Jet. ... And LaDainian Tomlinson had a 32-yard reception, his longest as a Jet, to set up the Keller score. ... The Jets were held to 45 yards rushing, but their D walled off the Cowboys for a 64-yard ground game.
The Jets had no penalties marked off against them by referee Alberto Riveron. It was the first no-penalty game for them since 2007 vs. Philadelphia and the first no-penalty victory since 2001 vs. Kansas City. ... All five turnovers occurred in the second half, with the Jets winding up with a plus-1 advantage. ... Antonio Cromartie was the deep back on the first three Dallas KOs and returned all three for 51 yards combined.
The stirring pregame ceremony featured a coin flip presided over by former President George W. Bush, Robert De Niro reading a passage, "Taps" being played from Ground Zero and "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes in the stadium, and a full-field American flag fluttering to the National Anthem by Lady Antebellum. Halftime featured turned-down lights and a tribute to commemorate the 9/11 anniversary.