Just like the improbable win over the Rams as a whole, the Jets' defensive effort in this remarkable and improbable 23-20 victory was bigger than the sum of its parts.
The numbers weren't staggering. The Rams awoke after a sluggish first half and finished with 303 scrimmage yards. Big plays weren't coming from Jared Goff to Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in the pass game as usual, but Woods had a 40-yard end-around and TE Tyler Higbee a spinning 44-yard catch-and-run.
And the Jets defense, still scuffling through with its patchwork secondary and with a line that had already lost Folorunso Fatukasi for a week to COVID regulations, then lost Quinnen Williams to the NFL's concussion protocol late in the third quarter.
But the D was up to the task. It started with new coordinator Frank Bush's game plan, which worked like a subtle charm.
"It was about eliminating the big plays, any kind of chunk plays down the field," Jets head coach Adam Gase said. "We did a good job in the run game but we got loose there when Quinnen went out — you can see his value and the negative plays he can create right there.
"But it was kind of our tempo. We could not give up plays if we were not ready. I felt like our guys did a good job of being ready to go and not giving up big plays when those situations came up."
There were several different tempos for the Green & White during the game. The defense began fast and sharp as, up until the last drive of the first half, the Rams' top-10-ranked offense was nowhere to be found. Of the first six series, five ended in punts (one of them blocked by recently added S J.T. Hassell) and one came on rookie CB Bryce Hall's first pro pick, a flypaper one-hander that he returned to the LA-22 to position the visitors for Sam Ficken's second field goal and a 13-0 lead.
Then the tempo shifted when the Rams roared to life and on a few occasions gave the impression they were going cut their deficit to 23-17, which they did, then take a 24-23 lead, which they didn't. Still, they scored 20 points on four straight possessions to slice the Jets' advantage from 17 points down to three.
Yet the defense, described by some observers as "just hanging on" at this point, still kept making enough plays to hold the lead. LB Neville Hewitt applied a team-high 10 tackles, many of the bone-rattling variety. Nathan Shepherd, John Franklin-Myers and Frankie Luvu each notched a pair of QB hits on Goff. The Rams came in with the seventh-best third-down offense in the NFL but converted just two of 11 opportunities.
It came down to Los Angeles returning a punt to the Jets 43 (and no further, thanks to Braden Mann's artful open-field tackle) with 5:33 to play.
It was gut-check time. It was Maye Day.
"I mean, it's a four-quarter ballgame," said S Marcus Maye, who early in the fourth period lost Tyler Higbee in coverage as the TE grabbed Goff's 3-yard scoring strike to cut the Jets' edge to 23-17. "They made a play at the goal line. Short memory. Come back out and answer the bell. And that's what we did as a defense. When they started coming back and swinging back, we just stuck it out. We pulled together as a team, as a group, all three phases."
LA coach Sean McVay thought he might get Maye with another Rams tight end, and confidently called for Goff to launch a long ball for Gerald Everett on fourth-and-4 from the 37. But Maye, as he is now making a weekly habit of doing, was all over the play and batting the ball safely away at the Jets 9.
All the Jets needed from there was a mere four-minute drive, which Darnold and Frank Gore directed to set up their first victory formation of the season.
Most important to Maye was not his play but the showing of his unit and his team for getting off that bad train to 0-16 before it pulled into the station in two weeks.
"It was just about us getting a win, no matter how we got it," he said. "We've been close in prior weeks. Just the fact that we stuck it out, we all understood that. We came out that last series and we played together.
"Everybody's really proud of each other for coming out earlier this week and just going to work. And we finally put it together on Sunday."