This wasn't the way homefield advantage was supposed to work.
Tim Tebow's ribs were too sore and he was deactivated 90 minutes before the opening kickoff. Mark Sanchez's offense was struggling mightily with three interceptions on Sanchez's first nine throws. Nick Folk doinked two long field goal tries off the uprights. The Cardinals, scuffling as badly as the Jets in the last two months, ran a fake punt for 40 yards. And two ex-Jets were doing in their old team, Kerry Rhodes with two first-quarter interceptions and Jay Feely with the long field goal after that fake to give the visitors a 3-0 lead at halftime.
Needless to say, the fans in the stands were not happy.
But things changed dramatically with 4:48 left in the third quarter. Head coach Rex Ryan called Sanchez to the sideline and inserted Greg McElroy into the game for his first action as a pro.
That decision — plus a defensive that absolutely smothered Arizona rookie Ryan Lindley's offense — were the pillars to the Jets' bizarre, improbable, yet somehow uplifting 7-6 victory over the Cardinals.
McElroy threw the TD pass to Jeff Cumberland at the end of his first drive as a pro QB to give the Jets the lead, then led them 11 plays and 68 yards to the Arizona 1, from where the second-year man kneeled twice, thus burning the final 7:55 off the game clock. That iced the win, which improved the Jets to 5-7 (and dropped the Cards to 4-8 with their eighth straight loss) with another winnable game immediately ahead, at Jacksonville against the 2-10 Jaguars.
"We knew it was going to be tough sledding. I was really proud of everyone's effort, especially our defense," Ryan said. "You'd like to put more points on the board than the seven we did, but it was good enough today. You're going to have days like that. I feel fortunate to be on the winning side."
"It was fun. We were having a good time," said McElroy, who said he had no indication he would be playing until he was told to start warming up after Sanchez's final third-quarter drive. "It was exciting to get a shot and go in there. Fortunately, my teammates did a fantastic job executing."
"From the get-go, obviously the first play, it just wasn't my day," Sanchez said. "It's unfortunate but I'm really happy for the team and I'm happy for Greg. He came in and played his butt off. He got us a big win."
And with Ryan's decision to bench Sanchez for the first time in his and the QB's four seasons together on the Green & White, you knew what the immediate postgame questions for Ryan, Sanchez, McElroy and the Jets locker room were.
"At that time I felt I needed to make a change. That's why I made it," Ryan said. "I'll always do what's in the best interest of our football team and try to find ways to win."
And the starter in seven days against the Jags is ...
"I'll let you know who's going to be the quarterback when I'm ready," the coach said. "We'll evaluate our situation as the week goes on."
Will it be McElroy? "No expectations at this point," he said.
"I have no idea," said Sanchez, who huddled with Ryan at his locker for five minutes after the coach's news conference. "I'll be ready to play and whatever Rex decides to do, we'll go with that."
G-Mac Gets the Call
McElroy's first drive of the game — and of his two-year career as the Jets' backup — was a thing of beauty that reenergized the crowd. He directed a 10-play, 69-yard drive that lasted nearly five minutes and ended with his play-action rollout flip to Cumberland all alone in the end zone for the go-ahead score on the first play of the fourth quarter. On the drive McElroy was 2-for-3 passing for 9 yards, 1-for-3 rushing and he drew an unnecessary-roughness call on the Cards at the end of that run.
"We needed 1 or 2 yards and they had everybody down coming hard for the run," Cumberland said. "It popped wide open. Greg didn't throw it too hard or too high. He threw it perfect."
The 2011 seventh-rounder out of Alabama endured a pair of three-play drives after that, but he was just resting. With 7:55 left, he stepped behind center Nick Mangold once more at his 26 and led the Jets on the victory-securing drive.
He hit Jeremy Kerley on a key 13-yarder on third-and-9 to the AZ-24. But Shonn Greene was the star of this final drive, carrying seven times for 45 yards (and clearing 100 rush yards for the eighth time in his career in the process). His final "real" carry on the march was a 5-yarder right after the two-minute warning that, armed with his orders from Ryan and coordinator Tony Sparano, he took to the 1 as Cardinals made half-hearted efforts to tackle him before intentionally going down at the Cards 1.
With Arizona out of timeouts, that play effective won the game. McElroy went into the victory formation twice to enter the first 7-6 game in Jets franchise history into the books.
McElroy will be the face of this win but the defense was the backbone of it. They harassed the overmatched Lindley into a 10-for-31, 72-yard passing performance and the Cards into an 0-for-15 third-down performance that is the most dominating in team annals since third-down performances were available in 1978 and into nine three-and-out series, equaling the most by a Jets defense since '78. The Cards' 22 second-half yards were the least by an opponent in a second half since the Jets held the Colts to 3 yards in a 1995 loss at Indianapolis.
"It was just great playcalling. Guys were playing relentless," said CB Antonio Cromartie, whose outstanding coverage on WR Larry Fitzgerald resulted in Arizona's top WR winding up with one catch (on seven targets) for 23 yards. "Our biggest focus was to make sure we got off the field and we did a great job of that. We just wanted to make sure we executed and did the things we needed to do."
"Definitely, we needed the win," said Muhammad Wilkerson, who split a late third-down sack of Lindley with Bart Scott. "Our coaches all week told us, don't come out of character to make a play. Nobody did. Everybody knew their assignments and did their jobs."
The Cards' 72 gross passing yards and 56 net yards were both the lowest by an opposing team since Miami came to the Meadowlands, put up 55 gross and 30 net, and still beat the Jets that day, 10-6. The Dolphins QB that game? Chad Henne, who's in line to start for the Jaguars against the Jets next weekend.
Points at a Minimum in First Half
The Jets offense, on its first drive of the game after the defense's first stop of the Cards, did what has become all too familiar. Sanchez, off play action, was under the gun immediately near his end zone and threw the ball up for grabs — specifically, for Rhodes to grab it in front of Kerley for the interception at the Jets 26.
Disaster was averted, though, as RB Beanie Wells was stopped on third-and-1 by Sione Po'uha and on fourth-and-1 by Bryan Thomas.
The Jets took over at their 18 and Drive 2 went a little better than Drive 1 as Sanchez, Cumberland and Bilal Powell all picked up first downs. The drive stalled and Folk came on for a 46-yard field goal — which bounced off the left upright. Folk entered the game 5-for-6 at MetLife this year, with the only miss coming on a blocked kick vs. Miami.
The defense next threw a three-and-out stop against the NFL's worst three-and-out offense this season and got the ball back after a punt at their 19. Again the offense moved across midfield, with Sanchez's nice 19-yard back-shoulder completion to Kerley against Patrick Peterson the centerpiece.
But again Sanchez threw a bad ball — and again Rhodes was the interceptor — when he tried to hit Cumberland on a seam route. Rhodes' two first-quarter picks made him the first Jets opponent since Los Angeles Rams CB Kirk Collins had two in the opening frame of a 1983 game.
The defense got the dirtywork done again, forcing another three-and-out on the drive that began at the Jets 48. But from the 20, Sanchez returned the favor with a three-and-out as he was sacked on third-and-2. The Cards took over after Robert Malone's punt at their 32.
The defense pitched another three-and-out. And Sanchez gave it back on his third INT of the game, although this one was a deep-down-the-middle throw for Chaz Schilens on which Peterson made a spectacular leaping grab and pick.
This time the Jets repaid the INT with an INT as S LaRon Landry broke on Lindley's downfield throw for rookie WR Michael Floyd for his second theft of the season and returned it 24 yards to the Cards 37. This series also went nowhere, and this time Folk came on for a 52-yard try toward the east end zone. This kick hit the right upright and bounced away. Still scoreless.
Another three-and-out stop, the defense's fourth in a six-drive span, started the home team at its 20 after a touchback. Another move across midfield, this time when Ryan challenged the third-down spot of a Dustin Keller completion, won the challenge and got the first down at the Arizona 44. Another giveback to the Cards, this time on Malone's strong drop punt fair-caught at the Cards 9.
This drive would have ended on a three-and-out as well, and the Jets would have gotten the ball back with a minute to go in the half, but for the latest special-teams error. The Jets punt return team didn't take account of a Tebowesque fake against them, this one run by Cards personal protector Rashad Johnson for 40 yards to the Jets 35.
Three plays later Jay Feely came on for a 48-yard try. He failed to find the upright, which in this case meant he put it cleanly through and the visitors from the Valley of the Sun took a 3-0 lead off the field with them at halftime.
Since 2006 there have been only two QBs who suffered through nine three-and-out series in a game and the Jets defense caused both of them, by Henne and the Dolphins in '09 and Lindley and the Cardinals today. ... The Cards managed five first downs, which tied the Jets franchise record for fewest first downs by an opponent in a game. The Jets' 20-5 first-down edge was their largest since their 21-5 edge over the Bengals in the 2009 "Win And We're In" Game 16.
McElroy finished 5-for-7 for 29 yards and a TD after Sanchez went 10-for-21 for 97 yards and three INTs. Greene finished with 104 yards on 24 carries, rookie WR Stephen Hill had a game-high five receptions for 40 yards and drew a key illegal-contact penalty on third down on the final drive. ... Rhodes wound up with his 2 INTs, another PD, a forced fumble that the visitors also recovered, and six solo tackles. "I played OK but we didn't get the win," Rhodes said, "so it wasn't a good way to return."
Folk had hit four consecutive 50-yard-plus FG tries before his second-quarter miss. ... The last time the Jets gave up a fake punt that long was a 40-yard pass from punter Rohn Stark to Michael Prior to Mike Prior against Indianapolis in 1990. ... Brian Billick, Ryan's head coach from 1999-2007 with the Ravens, was Fox's network analyst for this game, his second working a Jets game for Fox.