This one wasn't set up for a celebration of the South Florida Jets Fan Club. It was "Orange Crush" night at Sun Life Stadium, with the Dolphins coming out in their orange jerseys for only the fourth time in their history. More than the usual number of Dolfans seemed to be in the stands, more than the usual number of Miami celebrities, Dolphins owners, and Miami Dolphins celebrity owners on the field.
But despite the Dolphins' comeback efforts in their home opener, the Jets weathered all storms and gave notice that they're the players in the AFC East they said they were all year.
The Jets opened the scoring in their 31-23 victory with two Mark Sanchez touchdown passes to tight end Dustin Keller, furthered it with Sanchez's third TD, a catch-and-dash with Braylon Edwards, and finished it with another LaDainian leap.
But the "W" wasn't secured until Drew Coleman intercepted a Chad Henne fourth-and-4 pass from the Jets 5 with 27 seconds to play that was batted into the air by Brodney Pool.
"I always thought our offense could play at this level, but I never thought our defense would play at that level," head coach Rex Ryan said in the Sun Life Stadium visitors' interview room. "Both teams had over 400 yards of offense. It was just an unbelievable performance by our offense and our special teams. Our defense was as resilient as can be and found a way to get it done at the end."
The win lifted the Jets to 2-1 and into a first-place tie in the AFC East with Miami and New England — or in Rex's new math, "a half-game ahead in the division" with tiebreaking victories over both the 'Fins and Pats now — and a chance to further improve their early division success with another chance for a division road win next Sunday at Buffalo.
"We had back-to-back wins which is great and this is the first win on the road, which is even better, but two divisional opponents is huge," said Sanchez, who had another strong passing line of 15-for-28 for 256 yard, three TDs, no INTs and no sacks behind an O-line led by Nick Mangold, his center with the aching shoulder. "These guys are no slouches, they're very good teams with great defenses and we need our best effort every week. I'm proud of our guys for bringing our focus and our attention to detail on the road."
The win also simultaneously removed a little of the sting from last year's 30-25 Monday night loss in this stadium, which except for the ending had a lot of the same attributes of this exciting triumph over these tough Dolphins.
"I thought the big difference last year at the end of the game was when someone had to make a play, they made it," said Eric Smith, one of the timely defensive/special teams stars with a blocked punt to set up the Jets' early fourth-quarter field goal. "This year we made it.
The biggest storm of the night for the Green & White came when Sanchez threw a high, hard one from near his goal line that sailed off Jerricho Cotchery's fingers and was picked by diving CB Jason Allen and returned to the Jets 5.
But not so fast. Ryan challenged the call of interception, ref Jerome Boger reversed and Steve Weatherford punted 61 yards out of his end zone. Major disaster averted, although the Dolphins did creep back to within 24-23 on Dan Carpenter's third field goal.
And then the Jets offense iced it by moving 79 yards to a second-and-goal at the 'Fins 1. That's where LaDainian Tomlinson put up another monument to his new career in green as he leaped over the right-side blocking of Mangold, Brandon Moore and Damien Woody to open the Jets' eight-point lead with 1:55 to play.
"It was a great feeling, my first as a Jet," Tomlinson said of the score. "We wanted to close the game out. We knew what was on the line. Everybody was talking about it in the huddle. Guys were saying, 'Come on LT, andlet's get the ball in.' And it was a great feeling to get the ball over the goal line."
The second half developed into a bit of a horse race after the Jets went into the locker room with a 14-10 lead. The Dolphins assembled their second consecutive six-minutes-plus drive to Chad Henne's third-down 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall and took their first lead of the night at 17-14 with 8:47 left in the third quarter.
One play and 18 seconds later, the Jets had the lead back and didn't lose it again. Edwards, who entered the game on the first play of the second quarter after sitting out the first period due to his Tuesday morning arrest for DUI in NYC, ran an out route, then spun Jason Allen into the Sun Life grass and took off down the left sideline. He was never tackled and didn't stop until he'd covered the 67 yards to the go-ahead TD.
"It was the perfect thing that could have happened to him. He worked so hard all week long and as soon as he stepped in the building, he let everything outside of that building go," Sanchez said. "Everybody checks their baggage at the door and he just focused in. I couldn't have asked for a better week for him. We had all the confidence in the world in him, we loved him all week long just as we did before the incident and we'll continue doing the same thing. That's the kind of team we have."
For Sanchez, that was his third TD pass of the game. In the first 19 games of his NFL career, the young passer had no three-TD games. At this point he got his second in two games.
"He's been playing great," said Tomlinson of Sanchez. "For a young guy, second year in the league, second year in this offense, it's incredible what he's doing. He's really playing out of his mind. He hasn't turned the ball over at all. He's in control — in the huddle and on the sideline. I really enjoy watching him play."
The Dolphins motored right back, with Henne-to-Marshall for 40 yards to first-and-goal at the 7 before stalling and settling for Dan Carpenter's second field goal to slice the lead back to one point, Jets by 21-20.
The Jets wasted field position on Carpenter's out-of-bounds kickoff, but got it back and then some when Eric Smith blocked yet another punt, taking this one almost off Brandon Fields' foot to set them up at Miami's 17. It was Smith's third blocked punt, beginning with the Patriots at New England last year and including the August Giants preseason game.
The visitors almost cashed it in on Sanchez's 5-yard TD scamper, but Matt Slauson was called for holding and the Green & White had to settle for Nick Folk's 30-yard field goal and a 24-20 lead with 12:55 to play.
One of the keys to success for the Jets in this game was to take the two-thirds of the stadium's orange-clad fans out of the equation early. And the offense did that on its first drive, a masterful march of 10 plays and 72 yards that concluded with Dustin Keller's falling-down end zone grab of Mark Sanchez's 24-yard double-pump pass, with safety Yeremiah Bell unable to prevent it.
Then two drives later, Sanchez and the offense moved 90 yards in seven plays. Keller had three catches on the drive, including a 31-yarder into Dolphins territory and the 12-yard scoring strike, which Sanchez threaded past the double coverage of Bell and LB Bobby Carpenter.
That gave the Jets a 14-0 lead and their first 14-point first-half lead in any game against the Dolphins since 2001, when the Green & White posted a 24-0 shutout of the 'Fins.
But Miami wasn't about to let this South Florida party be hijacked by any Big Apple city slickers. The 'Fins put together their best series of the night, nine plays and 76 yards, to Chad Henne's 3-yard TD dart to TE Anthony Fasano in front of S Eric Smith just over the goal line with 9:13 left in the first half. The play before that, Kyle Wilson was hit with a 27-yard pass interference penalty at the 3 for running into WR Brian Hartline.
The Dolphins came admirably off the 14-0 ropes to make a game of it on their big night. But the Jets, even without the injured Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pace and with the Edwards situation swirling all week, showed a little of that Ryan resilience.
"It's a tough division," said Keller, who ended with six catches for 98 yards, all in the first half. "The strongest team will be the team with the best defense and an offense that's moving the ball without turnovers. So far I think we're that team. I love our chances."
Rex Ryan normally names four or five players as game captains, who all come out to preside at the opening coin toss. Tonight Jason Taylor was the Jets' only game captain to go to the 50 for the opening coin toss. He lost the toss, the Dolphins deferred and the Jets started on offense. ... Taylor also increased his NFL-leading sack total among active players to 129.5 with a first-quarter drop of Henne.
Brad Smith was active again a 54-yard kickoff return and several nice runs out of the Tiger package that out-Wildcatted Ronnie Brown and the Dolphins' Wildcat. B.Smith wound up with 202 all-purpose yards to become the first Jets wide receiver since then-rookie Jerricho Cotchery in the 2004 regular-season finale at St. Louis to clear 200 APY in a game.
Henne wasn't always as razor sharp as he was in last year's game in Miami but he was sharp enough in completing 26 of 44 for 363 yards. And Marshall gave Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson and other Jets DBs fits in grabbing 10 passes for 166 yards and his TD.
If Keller's second half vs. New England and his first half tonight were one game, it would be a monster outing: 10 catches for 166 yards and three TDs. ... Nick Folk attempted a 61-yard FG attempt to end the first half that, if he had made it, would have smashed the Jets' franchise distance record of 55 yards. But his kick was rejected by Bell.