With heavy hearts, thousands of New York Jet fans filled Met Life Stadium on Sunday night for their team’s 2011 season opener while millions more in the New York area watched on national television.
For all of them, the game was a temporary distraction from an otherwise difficult day during which Jet fans, New Yorkers, and Americans across the United States shared in recognizing the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.
While Patriot Day ceremonies were conducted in every NFL stadium that hosted a game on Sunday, perhaps the feelings among NFL fans were felt the strongest in the Jets’ home stadium with New York’s World Trade Center enduring the brunt of the horrific attacks a decade ago.
Appropriately, as if mimicking New Yorkers’ resiliency In the face of extreme adversity, the Jets (1-0) properly represented their city by overcoming tremendous odds to score the final 17 points – all in the final quarter – and win a thriller, 27-24, over fittingly, the Dallas Cowboys (who many still think of as America’s Team).
For the most part, the Cowboys (0-1) clearly outplayed the Jets, and Dallas took the largest lead of the game (24-10) early in the fourth quarter.
Given the history in such situations – Dallas had never lost (242-0-1) when leading in the fourth quarter by at least 14 points – the Jets appeared to facing an insurmountable situation.
That is, until Dallas quarterback Tony Romo (23-36, 342 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 lost fumble, 4 sacks) did what he’s often done in his NFL career – he played well, putting his team in a position to win, only to commit some costly fourth-quarter turnovers and cost his team the game.
Long before that however, things were going smoothly for Romo and the Cowboys.
Dallas took the opening kickoff and went 69 yards on nine plays to grab a 7-0 lead just 4:33 into the game on a three-yard touchdown pass from Romo to wide receiver Dez Bryant (3 catches, 71 yards).
The next seven possessions then resulted in punts (four by the Jets and three by the Cowboys) before Dallas went 47 yards on ten plays to increase its lead to 10-0 on a 34-yard field goal by Dan Bailey with 3:16 left in the opening half.
New York finally responded with a nine-play, 87-yard drive to trim Dallas’ lead to 10-7 on a four-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mark Sanchez (26-44, 335 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 4 sacks) to tight end Dustin Keller (5 catches, 61 yards) just 37 seconds before halftime.
Keller was one of seven players with over 60 yards receiving. Wide receivers Plaxico Burress (4 catches, 72 yards) and Santonio Holmes 6 catches, 70 yards) complimented a team-high 73 receiving yards (on 6 catches) from running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
Meanwhile, in addition to Bryant’s production, tight end Jason Whitten led Dallas with 6 catches and 110 yards while wide receiver Miles Austin added four catches for 83 yards.
Just as they did to start the game, the Cowboys similarly scored on their possession after halftime, going 73 yards on eight plays to lead 17-7 on a 36-yard touchdown pass which Austin held onto along with cornerback Antonio Cromartie in the end zone with 8:05 left in the third quarter (the tie went to Austin and the offense).
Former Dallas draft pick, kicker Nick Folk, then capped a 10-play, 64-yard drive and pulled the Jets to within 17-10 on a 34-yard field goal with 4:01 left in the period.
But, Dallas linebacker Sean Lee (who had a monster game with a game-high 11 tackles and a key interception), picked Sanchez off at the Jets’ 38-yard line and returned the ball to the New York 1-yard line.
That set up a one-yard touchdown run by running back Felix Jones (17 carries, game-high 44 yards, 1 TD, 1 fumble) which gave the Cowboys a commanding 24-10 lead with 14:50 left in the game.
The Jets answered on the next drive though, going 84 yards in seven plays, trimming the Cowboys’ lead to 24-17 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Burress with 11:56 remaining.
Three plays later however, the Jets let Jason Whitten roam free on a 64-yard gain to the New York 3-yard line.
The Jets appeared to be in trouble, but when shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis jammed Bryant in the end zone on 3rd-and-2 from the New York 2-yard line, Romo was forced to scramble. He tried to score up the middle but he lost the ball a split-second before his right knee hit the ground.
It was another costly late-game turnover, the type of which has plagued Romo many times. And, the worst with that was yet to come.
The Jets advanced the ball near midfield, but Sanchez fumbled when he was sacked by safety Danny McCray on a blitz.
The Cowboys took over at the Jets’ 47-yard line, but Jones lost two yards on a first-down carry and Romo threw a pair of incompletions.
That led to a game changer that continued New York’s remarkable comeback when Joe McKnight made a great diving bock with his right hand on a fourth-down punt by punter Mat McBriar.
Undrafted second-year player Isaiah Trufant (from FCS program Eastern Washington) scooped up the loose ball and scampered 18 yards, untouched, to tie the game, 24-24, with five minutes left.
The teams then traded punts, and the Cowboys seemed to be in decent shape to produce a game-winning field goal drive, taking over at their own 41-yard line with 59 seconds and one time out remaining.
On the next play though, Romo, instead of throwing the ball away, tried to force an ill-advised pass to Bryant, who was blanketed closely by Revis.
Too easy for an average cornerback, and for a talent Revis, it was a practically an automatic interception, which was brought back 20 yards to the Dallas 34-yard line.
The Jets could only move two yards closer, but that was enough for Folk to beat his former team on a 50-yard field goal inside the right upright with just 27 seconds left.
Like they have many times over the past two seasons, the Jets walked a fine line and came out on the right side between success and failure.
New York (9-7 two years ago and 11-5 last year, while reaching the AFC title game each of the past two years) could have easily been a mediocre 8-8 and missed the playoffs each of those two years if not for some lucky breaks and pulling out games the way they did on Sunday night.
Yet, once again, the Jets somehow found a way. And, on an emotional night, it was an especially satisfying gut-check win for millions of New York-area Jet fans.
Acknowledging the energy his team received from Jet fans on a special evening, head coach Rex Ryan said, “We fed off our fans. There is no doubt. Nobody left, they hung in with us the entire time. And, this win is for our community. We all felt it. And, we kept hanging in there, believing we could get it done, and that’s exactly what we did.”
During a more normal week, the Jets will try to do the same for their fans at home against Jacksonville (1-0) next Sunday at 1 pm ET.