New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini frequently likes to use boxing analogies when he delivers messages to his team: On Sunday, his club suffered a flash first round knockdown but they got up off the canvas and simply beat down the Minnesota Vikings 26-13 in a battle of playoff hopefuls at the Metrodome. With the win, the Jets pushed their record to 8-6 and kept the heat on other AFC Wild Card hopefuls.
"I was really proud of the way the team prepared this week," Mangini said. "I was proud of the approach that they took and the energy level that we had going into the game."
This was a systematic destruction. Quarterback Chad Pennington, who completed 29 of 39 passes, threw for a career-high 339 yards. Laveranues Coles also tied a career-high with 12 receptions and he averaged 12 yards on each catch. Defensively, the Jets rebounded nicely following an early touchdown, holding the Vikings to just 15 first downs and 307 total yards with much of the damage coming late. Second-year kicker Mike Nugent continued his torrid pace, connecting on all four of his field goal attempts including a 52-yard boot.
"It just shows the character of our team – how we are able to bounce back, pull together, and play for each other," Pennington said. "That is the most important thing as a team, being able to play for each other and we put together a nice win."
Both teams went to the blitz early in the first quarter and that played to the Vikings' advantage. The pumped up home team forced a turnover on the game's second play from scrimmage. Linebacker Napoleon Harris came in on a presser and was chipped low by rookie running back Leon Washington, but the block didn't prevent Harris from knocking the ball loose from quarterback Chad Pennington. E.J. Henderson recovered for the Vikings at the Jets' 34-yard line.
With the great field position, the Vikings took advantage on the scoreboard. The Jets went to an all out blitz on third down, leaving Andre Dyson in man coverage on the outside matched up against wideout Travis Taylor. Quarterback Brad Johnson made a quick drop and lobbed a ball to a wide open Taylor, who had beaten Dyson to the inside. The scoring play covered 30 yards.
But the Jets didn't get rattled and responded with a touchdown march. Cedric Houston's six-yard run was only the sixth rushing touchdown the Vikings had allowed on the season. Rookie fullback Stacy Tutt, a former college quarterback who was moved from the practice squad to the active roster on Saturday, led the way for Houston. Pennington was near perfect on the six minute and 33 second drive, completing seven of eight passes for 56 yards.
On the Jets' third possession, Pennington connected with Justin McCareins for a 50-yard gain. The offense would stall at the Minnesota 19, and the Jets weren't able to capitalize with points. Punter Ben Graham handled a high snap and then fumbled the placement for kicker Mike Nugent. Early in the second quarter, Graham had perfect placement for Nugent and the second-year kicker hit a 25-yard field goal. The Green & White had their first lead of the game at 10-7 as 11:39 remained in the first half. After the early turnover, Pennington went on a tear while completing 14 of his first 17 passes for 157 yards.
The Jets' aerial onslaught only continued as the game progressed. Pennington staked New York a 17-7 advantage when he threw a pretty 21-yard scoring pass to Coles in the right corner of the end zone. Coles cleverly separated himself from corner Fred Smoot, using his right hand to find the corner before hauling in the toss.
"He attacks the ball in the air," Pennington said of Coles. "Any time the ball is in the air, he goes and gets it. He made some unbelievable catches and he is just a special player."
"I thought Laveranues' performance was outstanding; it is very typical Laveranues," Mangini said. "He comes out and he plays incredibly hard every week. He makes the tough catches - he had some opportunities and that is what you love about the guy."
Washington made amends for his previous mistake - starting, stopping, and darting his way to a 38-yard punt return after yet another defensive hold. That first rate special teams effort begot another as Nugent drilled a 52-yard attempt. Prior to the kick, Nugent thought back to his season-long 54 yarder against Houston on November 26.
"I was telling myself, 'Hit that same ball and you don't have anything to worry about,'" Nugent said. "I went up there and I actually felt that maybe I hit this one a little bit better. I was really excited that I was able to stay calm in that situation."
The first half domination by the Jets – their second powerful half against an NFC North opponent in three weeks – wasn't complete until Nugent drove home a 45-yard field goal through the uprights. A chorus of boos followed from the hometown crowd and the Jets took a 23-7 lead into intermission.
"We wanted to play with intensity and we were able to do that the whole game," said linebacker Victor Hobson, who paced the team with eight tackles.
That 16-point gap wasn't truly indicative of the Jets' mastery of the Vikings. The Jets were well schooled before this contest and both coordinators had terrific game plans. Under Brian Schottenheimer's direction, Pennington had one of his better first halves as a pro while completing 22 of 28 for 247 yards. Bob Sutton had his defenders flying around early, limiting the Vikings to just 22 rush yards and four first downs before intermission.
"We always talk about how there are going to be times where we are going to go through adversity," said cornerback Hank Poteat. "But it is all about fighting through it and continuing to play and staying within the game plan. Just continue to push and do what you are coached to do. We work so hard each and every week to prepare, and we just believe in ourselves."
There was some suspense in the second half. The hometown fans came alive when Minnesota head coach Brad Childress inserted rookie quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in place of the ineffective Johnson late in the third quarter. Jackson displayed patience on a screen to Mewelde Moore, and then the third-year back did much of the work by running through arm tackles on a 35-yard fourth quarter scoring play. David Barrett picked off a Jackson pass in the end zone, effectively ending it with 1:54 to play.
The Jets, who raised their record to 7-1 all-time against the Vikings, return to action on Christmas night down in South Florida against the Dolphins.
"I think this is a fun time of year to play football," Mangini said. "Winning each game in December is important and this was important. We are excited about next week. I think that is going to be great as well."