After taking a home pounding from San Francisco last week, the Jets were better prepared tonight to absorb something similar from the undefeated Houston Texans at MetLife Stadium before a Monday night audience.
At times familiar problems reared their ugly heads — difficulty running the ball and stopping the run, another costly two-minute-drill tipped interception, and the loss for the game of another top starter, this time center Nick Mangold.
But this time the Jets made a game of it. Maybe it was Mark Gastineau's impassioned halftime speech to the sellout crowd during his and Wesley Walker's Ring of Honor ceremony. Surely Joe McKnight added his magic to the mix with a 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown late in the third quarter to put the Jets within six points at 20-14. Mangold's return didn't hurt, either.
Finally, it came down to the Jets needing an 86-yard touchdown drive in the final 3:28 to pull off the stunning upset.
They didn't get to midfield. Sanchez's out pass to TE Jeff Cumberland was batted into the air by Cumberland and picked off by CB Kareem Jackson at the 42 with 1:51 to play. That was the biggest of the final nails in the coffin of the Jets' pride and desire this night as the Texans held on for a 23-17 verdict.
"That's a good football team that we played," head coach Rex Ryan said. "The thing that's upsetting is the fact that we helped them. Clearly, that's a good team that doesn't need any help. We're kicking ourselves."
It was Houston's first win in six tries against the Jets. It improved their record to 5-0 and dropped the Jets to 2-3. This is the Green & White's first week out of first place in the AFC East and their first week under .500 this season.
"It's frustrating because we knew we almost won that game," said DT Mike DeVito, who unofficially had a career-high eight tackles in the trenches. "We gave them things that we were in control of. But we'll bounce back."
A bounceback would help them salvage the last game of their three-game homestand but it, too, will be difficult, needing to come next Sunday against the Colts and first-pick-of-the-draft wunderkind Andrew Luck.
The McKnight Effect
On the first play of the second half, the Jets lost Mangold to an ankle injury. He walked off slowly with help, then took the cart to the locker room as Matt Slauson moved from LG to center and Vlad Ducasse came in at LG.
Another Jets three-and-out series — their third of the game and 10th in two games — led to another Texans march built on three third-down conversions against the league's worst third-down defense before they stalled and Shayne Graham came on for his second field goal, this from 42 yards out, to lift the visitors to a 20-7 edge.
But then McKnight lit up the night, taking Graham's kickoff at his goal line and streaking straight up his left side. He gave a stiffarm to Graham, then fought past DeVier Posey at the 5-yard line and leaped over the goal line.
"Yes, I thought the momentum was in our hands," said McKnight, who had the NFL's best kickoff-return average in a quarter century last season and has hiked this year's average to 29.4, fourth in the league. "But we just have to finish. We have to play all four quarters."
The Jets tried to double down with an onside kick that Houston recovered after the ball was knocked from Schilens' grasp. The Texans then drove to Graham's third field goal for a 23-14 lead with 13 seconds left in the third frame.
"Great call, great call. We repped it all week," a downcast Schilens said. "If I caught it, we probably would've won the game. It was a huge letdown on my part."
"That was me all the way," Ryan said of the onsides call. "I came here to win. Whatever it takes. Faking a punt in your own territory, going for it on fourth down in your own territory — I came to win. I think when you ask your players to lay it out there and do whatever it takes to win, that's me included."
With Mangold back in the pivot, Sanchez began clicking again, hitting Cumberland for 24 yards on the last play of that quarter, then Jeremy Kerley for 36 yards to the Houston 16. Tim Tebow came in and spun to the 3 but that's as far as they could go and Nick Folk came on for a 21-yarder to make it 23-17 with 11:55 to play.
The defense held Schaub and the Texans once, but the offense had to punt. The defense stiffened again on third-and-1 at the Houston 42 and forced another punt. Kerley's fair catch at his 16 set the offense up for one last-gasp effort. But the gasp came too soon.
"I came out of my break and the ball was there. I couldn't adjust to it and tipped it," Cumberland said. "I'm a good athlete. I believe I should've, could've come up with the ball."
"Jeff made some great catches for us tonight," said Sanchez, who finished 14-of-31 passing for 230 yards. "He's not going to make them all — nobody is. We'll just keep repping it, keep working it and try to put it in front of him."
A Familiar-Looking First Half
The Jets won their first toss of the season and decided to defer their kickoff/return decision until the second half and put their defense on the field first. It didn't start out as Ryan intended as the Texans sliced through the D with misdirection and lack of contain, and striking on a Matt Schaub 34-yard play-action touchdown pass to wide-open TE Owen Daniels at the goal line for a 7-0 lead just 3:55 into festivities. It was the second first-drive TD by the opponents this season. It was not a promising start for the home team.
But shortly the game's momentum took a turn. On their second straight third-and-13 play, the Jets defense improved on their previous series by taking the ball away. CB Antonio Cromartie, all over WR Andre Johnson, snapped up the Schaub pass at the Jets 43.
From there Sanchez threw two of his most beautiful passes of the season. The first was a 1-on-1 winner to Clyde Gates for 27 yards — the former Miami speedster's longest catch as a pro. Then Sanchez found TE Jeff Cumberland free and streaking to the end zone. Sanchez's 27-yard strike was bobbled once by Cumberland but secured for the TD — Cumberland's first score as a pro — to tie the game up at 7-7 with 4:07 left in the opening stanza.
Momentum stayed with the home team on the first play of the second quarter when, facing fourth-and-two-inches, Ryan called for the second Tebow fake punt deep in his own end in the past three games. Once again Tebow converted with a 3-yard run.
But then Sanchez threw three straight incompletions — one off-target on a rollout to TE Konrad Reuland, one sailing over the inexplicably stumbling Bilal Powell, and the third-down throw for a sure first down to Powell alone over the middle swatted down at the line by LB Brooks Reed.
With that, old mo shifted back to the visitors. Off a third short punt by Robert Malone, the Texans went 67 yards quickly, with the last three plays runs of 8, 21, and 13 yards by Arian Foster, the last for a walk-in touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 11:11 left in the first half.
The Jets fought the Texans down toward the two-minute drill and then started to move again. Sanchez was sacked by Reed behind his 18, but Lex Hilliard, making his Jets debut, picked up the loose ball and returned it 15 yards. Then No. 6 hit Chaz Schilens for 12 yards, Kerley for 36, and Schilens for 10 more in hurryup mode to give the hosts a red zone opportunity at the Houston 17.
Then on the next play, déjà vu all over again. Sanchez, trying to find Kerley, had his pass tipped by J.J. Watt at the line, picked off by CB Brice McCain, and returned 86 yards to the Jets 9. Bilal Powell's relentless pursuit saved a TD, but Graham put through a 27-yard field goal to make it 17-7 at 0:00.
"It's a quick throw," Sanchez said of his first pick. "On any of those underneath routes, if you don't get those guys' hands down, that's just the way it goes. J.J. is smart. He knows when he's not getting a pass rush. Our line for the most part played really well tonight. They kept that guy out of there. But he's going to get some plays. It's just inevitable. ... That's part of his deal and we've got to find a way to keep their hands down."
It was the second consecutive week that the Jets were driving on a two-minute drill before the half, Sanchez threw a tipped interception, and the opponents turned it into a field goal and a 10-point lead. Not a promising way to head for the MetLife locker room.
Cumberland's TD was only the second TD in 37 drives since scoring on their opening drive in Game 2 at Pittsburgh. And it was the first first-quarter TD they had ever scored in their six all-time games vs. the Texans. ... Sanchez finished under .500 in completion percentage for the fourth straight game, going 14-for-31 for 230 yards, one TD and two INTs. ... The Texans got nine pass defenses on eight of Sanchez's passes, including five at/behind the line, and three of them by Watt.
Kerley had five receptions for a career-high 94 yards. ... Gates (shoulder) left the game and didn't return. Neither did NT Kenrick Ellis, who hobbled off late. ... David Harris had a game-high nine tackles plus a PD. ... The Jets didn't sack Schaub but did apply enough pressure to make him uncomfortable in a 14-for-28, 209-yard, one-TD, one-INT passing night. ... The run defense got better as the game went on, yet still yielded 169 rush yards to the Texans and 152 on 29 carries to Foster, who had an even 100 yards at the half.
Folk, who set the franchise record for most consecutive FGs from the start of a season last year by going 11-for-11, made it 7-for-7 in the fourth quarter. ... McKnight's TD was the Jets' 16th by seven different returners since 2002 under ST coordinator Mike Westhoff.