The Jets tonight were not-ready-for-primetime players. And while the affair got slightly better in the middle game as the green team tried to battle back into the contest in the chill Baltimore air, the night ultimately was ruled by the team that was dressed in black.
Mark Sanchez, under the gun from a patchwork offensive line that didn't get Nick Mangold back from his high ankle sprain as it had hoped, lost two first-half fumbles and threw a third-quarter interception, all of which were returned for touchdowns by the brawny Baltimore defense.
Those 21 points and the constant hits on the Jets QB were the centerpiece of the Ravens' 34-17 victory over the Jets, the seventh straight win for the Birds in this series and their fourth in a row at M&T Bank Stadium. It improved their record on the season to 3-1 and dropped the Jets to the breakeven mark at 2-2 after they opened the season promisingly with two victories.
Thus the homecoming of sorts for Rex Ryan, the former Baltimore defensive coordinator, and three ex-Ravens players now on the Jets in Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and Derrick Mason did not turn out the way they wanted.
"I've been around football a long time and I've never seen anything like that before," Ryan said. "I think the credit goes to their defense. It wasn't our best day, there's no question about it. It wasn't even close. But the opponent has as much to do with it as anything."
"Unless you identify the cracks, then we're going to keep on having the same problem as an offense," said Mason of a unit that was held to 150 yards, seven first downs and no touchdowns. "The defense did a hell of a job, but you can't turn the ball over four times, give up three touchdowns and a field goal. What's that? Twenty-four points?"
For starters, the first-quarter numbers were ugly for the green team, especially in offensive yardage. Baltimore held a 165-9 edge there, with the minus-156 differential the lowest since 2000. The good news: That game was the Monday Night Miracle win over Miami. The bad news: The Jets had dug too big a hole this time to climb back out of as they had against the Dolphins 11 years ago.
And although the Jets were hanging around down by 10 for about 8½ minutes of midgame clock time, their offense couldn't get any traction against the Ravens' D. And when CB Lardarius Webb jumped in front of Santonio Holmes on a sideline route and took Sanchez's pick back 73 yards for the third return TD with 8:49 left in the third quarter, it seemed to let the air out of the Jets' sails on some decidedly rough seas near Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
"We were fighting," said S Eric Smith of the defense, which held the Ravens to 267 yards and 13 points. "But when they got that one turnover in the third quarter, Baltimore just kind of pulled away from us. We couldn't get back in the game."
"That kind of ended up being the straw that broke the camel's back," said Sanchez.
Lost in the loss were two outstanding plays by Jets returners and a long-awaited sack for a former first-round pick.
Joe McKnight tied the game at 7-7 with his 107-yard kickoff return, which is the longest play in franchise history, eclipsing Brad Smith's 106-yard KOR at Pittsburgh last regular season.
David Harris' second-quarter interception-return score was the second pick of his career and his first score. And fellow linebacker Aaron Maybin, just re-signed this past week, got the first sack of his career after two sackless seasons with the Bills and forced a Joe Flacco fumble to boot. But that was one play before the Webb interception.
It was a bad night of passing for both teams — which also indicates a good night of pass defense for both teams — as Sanchez finished 11-for-35 for 119 yards and a 30.5 rating while Flacco was 10-for-31 for 163 yards, an INT and a 37.4 rating. But Flacco hit more key passes, and when the Ravens finally turned to their running game late in the third quarter, not even a Ricky Williams fumble — forced by Calvin Pace and recovered by Sione Pouha — could derail their train on this night.
Just as unfortunate for the Jets was a running game that managed 38 yards on 19 carries.
"This team watched the film, they studied, they're professionals," Sanchez said of the Ravens. "This was a big test for us and we didn't pass the test. We have a lot of work to be done and a lot of improvements to make."
Jets' Tough First-Half Sledding
It was quite the explosive start for both sides in the first 3½ minutes of the game. First the Jets defense gave up a third-and-14 conversion on a TE screen from Flacco to Ed Dickson, then Maybin, in his first contribution as a Jet, chased Flacco into an incompletion on third-and-10.
The Jets' first play was disastrous as S Ed Reed, unblocked off of Sanchez's blind side, hit the QB hard for a strip sack that LB Jameel McClain scooped up and took 6 yards into the end zone. The booth review upheld the call on the field and it was a quick 7-0 lead for the team in black.
But the team in white retaliated immediately with the longest play in franchise history. McKnight fielded Billy Cundiff's kickoff 7 yards deep in the end zone, then took off with a burst up the gut without seeming to get touched, then angled his way to the left pylon with two Ravens in pursuit for the 107-yard return.
Not only was it a record for length but also extended the record established by Mike Westhoff's kickoff return unit. It was the 15th return TD by the seventh different returner since '02 for the Jets.
Smith was beaten on a 52-yard pass play between Flacco and RB Ray Rice on the Birds' 70-yard drive to Cundiff's 38-yard field goal with 6½ minutes left in the opening period, but Smitty made a couple of deflections that saved long gainers to Ravens speedster Torrey Smith.
But the Ravens still put together their second long drive of the long first quarter that ended with Rice's 3-yard lunge off his left tackle to make it 17-7 with 1:14 left in the frame.
Cundiff's second field goal, also from 38 yards out, made it 20-7 with 13:19 left in the half. Then a little over five minutes later, Haloti Ngata, coming off the Jets' left side, applied the second forceful blindside strip sack of the game on Sanchez, with Jarret Johnson taking the loose ball 26 yards for a touchdown.
It appeared that Sanchez's arm was coming forward on the hit, but referee Mike Carey, after the booth review, ruled that "the quarterback's arm came forward with an empty hand" and upheld the TD ruling.
Ryan called a timeout expressly to get Carey's explanation personally and give the ref an earful, and Sanchez also argued his case, but it was too late.
But the Jets hung in there with another big return, this one by Harris, who faked a blitz, dropped into his zone and was waiting for Flacco's pass thrown under pressure. He took the pick 35 yards to slice the Jets' deficit to 27-14 and with 6:17 left in the half, it was still a game.
And when Nick Folk hit a 40-yard field goal with 2:14 to play, the Jets had come back to within 27-17.
But that was as close as the Green & White would get, and now they face their next stern test with their third consecutive road game next Sunday at New England.
No one in the visitors' M&T locker room was throwing in the towel. But all knew how difficult the road ahead will be.
"We'll be fine," said WR Plaxico Burress. "If it matters to you, if you're a professional, you'll come out Wednesday ready to work. We've got to be sharp. We've got to execute better, myself included."
"It's tough," said Slauson, "but it can be done."
"We've got no choice," said Smith.
Sanchez, whose passer rating was the fourth-lowest of his 41-game pro career, sounded determined to do whatever he could to improve his own performance and lift his offense and his team in time for the Patriots.
"It's just a good thing we're playing next week," he said. "We need to work through this. We've got to fight. The great thing is we're playing a team we know we can play well against. But it's a team that's playing dangerously well. ... We don't like this feeling. No doubt I know this team can bounce back."
The five return TDs in the game (two by Jets, three by Ravens) broke the NFL record for most return TDs in one game. The three Ravens TD returns equaled the franchise mark accomplished previously by five other opponents.
Colin Baxter got his second start at center for Mangold, left the game for a while, then returned. When he exited, Matt Slauson swung from LG to C for his first pro action at the pivot spot and Vladimir Ducasse came in at LG for his first offensive plays as a pro. ... LB Bryan Thomas left in the first half with an ankle injury and didn't return. No word on how serious the injury is. ... Holmes was kept off the scoreboard, snapping his seven-game streak of scoring at least one TD against the Ravens, all those games coming with the Steelers.