This one could have been perilous for the Jets, who already found themselves in dangerous territory.
Mark Sanchez, whom Rex Ryan named the starting QB on Wednesday, was already down one security-blanket receiver in the injured Dustin Keller when he lost another target when rookie Stephen Hill left with a knee injury. Sanchez also lost another strip sack.
The Jaguars were smelling blood in the first half, moving the ball fairly well. And of course the Jets had never won — in fact had never even held a second-half lead — in three previous meetings with the Jaguars alongside the St. Johns River.
But most of the negatives fell away as the Jets turned to the two things that Ryan wanted to build his fourth edition of the Green & White on this season. With Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell picking up steam in the second half, with Muhammad Wilkerson, David Harris, Antonio Cromartie and the Jets defense rising up as they had the previous week against the Cardinals, the Jets strode to a 14-point lead, then held on for the Jaguars' final drive for a 17-10 road win over the Jaguars at EverBank Field this afternoon.
"Obviously it's tough to win games in the National Football League," said head coach Rex Ryan. "We knew we were going to get their best shot and we certainly got it. I liked the will of our football team. It wasn't going great obviously in the first half. We stayed the course, started protecting the football better I thought our offensive line really took the game over as well as our defense in that third quarter. Obviously I would have liked to have finished the game better defensively, but you have to give Jacksonville credit. They made some big plays against us."
With the win, the Jets improved to 6-7, and developments around the NFL weren't unfavorable for the Green & White to live another week, when they go into Nashville to take on the Titans next Monday night. Both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers lost today, so the Jets trail those two clubs by just one game for the AFC's No. 6 seed.
And they did it with Sanchez going the distance this time for the return to the winners' circle. Ryan planned to back up Sanchez with Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy on the active roster, but Joe McKnight's morning migraines forced the Jets to activate Kahlil Bell and to deactivate McElroy. Still, Tebow, in his hometown, stayed on the sidelines with his still sore ribs as Sanchez managed the offense and the defense rose up to stifle the Jags.
"It feels good. It's a great win," Sanchez said. "It's one we needed to dig out there at the end and the defense came up with a big stop. I thought for the most part we were efficient running the ball, throwing the ball. Special teams put us in good situations. Got us a field goal there. It was great. It's a big win for us, so we're happy."
A Brawny Second Half in the 'Ville
The Jets defense opened the second half with its second 3-and-out series of the game, then the offense finally got cranking on a nine-play, 57-yard drive to Shonn Greene's first touchdown in the last six games. Greene carried six times for 29 yards on the march, including the 3-yard run to the 1-foot line, which might have been ruled a TD if Ryan had challenged the call.
But no harm, no foul — Greene burrowed across the goal on the next play and the Jets had their first second-half lead ever in Jacksonville. They had never led in the three previous losses here to the Jags in '96, '02 and '06.
The defense posted another 3-and-out as Antonio Cromartie took down WR Jordan Shipley for a 1-yard reception on third-and-3. Then after Robert Malone's Jets-long 59-yard net punt, the D got another 3-and-out on Muhammad Wilkerson's sack of Chad Henne. At this point the Cards and Jags had combined for 1-for-25 on third downs.
The offense didn't move quite as crisply on the ensuing drive, only to the JAX-26, so on came Nick Folk for a 44-yard field goal. He converted, making him 16-for-21 on the season but, more important, putting the Jets up, 10-3, with 2:47 left in the third quarter.
Another drive, another 3-and-out stop, with the key play this time David Harris tracking down the scrambling Henne on third down. And the Jets' ground game, feeling brawnier and brawnier as the game wore on, marched 46 yards on seven plays to Bilal Powell's fourth touchdown of the season and a 17-3 lead with 12:20 to play.
The defense finally gave ground as the Jaguars drove 86 yards on 11 plays, the final 32 covered by Montell Owens on a run through a large hole off left tackle, to make it 17-10, Jets, with 7:06 to play.
But the defense threw another 1-2-3-punt at the Jags, then Sanchez, facing third-and-8 and dropping back from his 13 with less than three minutes to play, threw his best pass of the day to TE Jeff Cumberland, a 37-yarder to midfield that took the Jets to the two-minute warning.
"Mark hit me right on target," Cumberland said. "As soon as I came out of my break, the ball was in the air."
"I thought he was good," Ryan said of Sanchez. "Obviously he made the huge, clutch throw to Cumberland at the end of the game. (That) was obviously a huge play for us. I like the way he played. He was smart with the football."
Still, the Jaguars stopped the Jets at their 48 and got the ball back with to play and no timeouts left. One more stop was required from the defense. They gave up a fourth-and-15 completion from Chad Henne to Jordan Shipley to the Jets 43 with 44 seconds left, then a fourth-and-2 to rookie WR Kevin Elliott to the Jets against Ellis Lankster. But Lankster immediately atoned by intercepting Henne's overthrown second-down pass at the Jets 4. One knee by Sanchez ended the drama and lifted the Jets for their two-hour ride home.
"It feels great, I can say that," Lankster said. "When I made that pick, I was happy and my teammates werr happy because the game was over."
Déjà Vu All Over Again: 3-0 First Half
The Jets opened the game on offense at their 20. Shonn Greene ran twice, then Sanchez threw out of an empty backfield to WR Mardy Gilyard. It was Gilyard's first NFL reception since 2010 and it went for 4½ yards, but since the Jets needed 5 for the first down, they had to punt.
The Jaguars moved across midfield on a Henne play-action to T Guy Whimper, an eligible receiver in that formation, for 10 yards and a first down. They then converted on fourth-and-1 with a 3-yard gain to upback Greg Jones to move to the 20 and on to the 11.
That's where the Jets D stood tall. On third-and-1 play action, Henne was crushed as he threw by LB Garrett McIntyre. The fluttering pass fell into Bart Scott's breadbasket for the Madbacker's first pick since 2006 with the Ravens. And the Jags were stopped for the first time this season from scoring in the red zone, after 25 successful RZ drives.
"We don't even deserve or warrant the right to speak about the playoffs," said Scott. "All we have earned is the right to speak about the Tennessee Titans next week on a national stage. Hopefully we can show the entire world what we're all about and that we are collectively together and that the locker room is still unified."
The Jets punted again, and then so did the Jaguars after a Yeremiah Bell blitz forced Henne into a third-down incompletion. Then the visitors started their most ambitious drive yet in this game.
Sanchez hit Jeremy Kerley on a slant for 12 yards on third-and-3. Then on the next third down, he went up top for Stephen Hill, who was pulled down by Derek Cox for the interference call and who also had to limp off the field after hurting his knee on the pulldown. Cox then interfered with Kerley on the next play as they moved to the Jags 36.
But Sanchez missed a wide-open Kerley in a clean pocket, then the pocket got dirty indeed when DE Jason Babin beat LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson to the outside, stripped the QB from the blind side, and recovered the fumble at the JAX-43.
Jacksonville drove to the Jets 13 but Sione Po'uha took down Greg Jones for no gain on third-and-1. The home side settled for Josh Scobee's 31-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 6:44 left in the half. That kick made Scobee 21-for-22 this season and 7-for-8 in five games vs. the Jets.
Sanchez opened the next drive with a nice play-fake completion to Chaz Schilens for 17 yards and the Green & White moved just across midfield, where disaster seemed to strike. Kerley, trying to get some big YAC, spun out of Cox's tackle but didn't lose him. Cox then made up for his two penalties on the previous series by stripping Kerley. Ex-Jets S Dwight Lowery dived for the ball, recovered, got up and took off on a seeming 68-yard touchdown return.
However, ref Al Riveron viewed the mandatory replay challenge on the scoring play and reversed the call into Lowery being "down by contact" from Kerley at the Jaguars 39. Could have been worse for the Jets. On the other hand, it was their second lost fumble in Jags territory in two drives. Not a good omen for the visitors.
The Jaguars punted twice, as did the Jets, whose second punt came after they ran the clock down with 1:49 to go. They gave their hosts 12 seconds to go from the Jets 44 to try for a score, which they did with Scobee's 55-yard try. Scobee, who hit from 55 in last year's Game 2, hooked this one wide left, and the Jets went into their EverBank Field locker room with their second consecutive scoreless half — something they hadn't done since the end of the '95 season — and their second straight 3-0 halftime deficit.
"We had a good pass rush with Quinton and Muhammad and it was a group effort. Today we started out a little slow," said OLB Calvin Pace. "Some of that you have to give credit to Jacksonville. They had a pretty good little scheme coming out but we found a way, which is always good. The offense helped us out with some ball control and got it done."
Powell finished with 78 yards on 19 carries, Greene 77 yards on 20 carries, and the Jets ground game had 166 yards on 42 totes. ... Sanchez finished 12-for-19 passing for 111 yards, no TDs, no INTs, one sack and a 79.1 rating. ... Kerley led the Jets with four catches (for 27 yards), Cumberland led with 37 receiving yards (on one catch). ... LaRon Landry, in the "showdown" against brother S Dawan Landry, tied with Harris for the team tackle lead with 10.