EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Two hours before kickoff, Aaron Rodgers was on the field at MetLife Stadium, walking on his own, no boot, no crutches, throwing passes around like he wasn’t barely a month removed from Achilles surgery. In another life, another season, this might have felt like torture for a New York Jets team that, a few weeks ago, felt like it had no hope of accomplishing much this year, not when Rodgers went down. The idea of Rodgers returning was like a carrot on a stick, always just out of reach.
It turns out, that might be a good thing, that carrot in the distance. If Rodgers continues on his trajectory, maybe he can return this season. The Jets can dream, especially after what happened Sunday. Rodgers has said he’d only want to come back if the Jets were winning, and in playoff contention. Well …
Sunday, the Jets played the 5-0 Philadelphia Eagles, last year’s NFC champions with a loaded roster, and they did it without Rodgers, without their best offensive lineman (Alijah Vera-Tucker, out for the season) and without their two best cornerbacks (Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, both out with concussions). The starters at cornerback: Bryce Hall and Craig James. Hall opened the season as the fifth string on the depth chart. James was a practice squad call-up.
Rodgers was on the field throwing around 2:30 p.m. During the game, Rodgers wore a headset and offered suggestions to Jets coaches. By 7:45, he was in the locker room, standing next to Zach Wilson, smiling during Robert Saleh’s postgame speech. Somehow, the Jets won 20-14 — a signature win for Saleh, a season-changing one for this team. The Jets had never beaten the Eagles in 12 prior meetings.
Eagles rue ‘so many mistakes,’ missed opportunities vs. Jets in first loss of season
It was ugly, but an ugly win is still a win. The Jets offense was 2-of-11 on third down. Wilson threw for fewer than 200 yards for the fifth time in six games. Their running backs averaged 3.5 yards per carry. There were brutally timed penalties and stalled drives in the red zone. Before the end of Sunday’s game, the Jets had gone eight straight red-zone drives without a touchdown. None of that information would typically be the logline for a team that won.
But the Jets did. Once upon a time, Reed declared this defense would be better than the ‘85 Chicago Bears. It was a bold proclamation, ridiculed by many. Maybe they aren’t those Bears, but they are these Jets — and this Jets defense just pulled off a performance for the ages.
“Our biggest thing,” linebacker Quincy Williams said, “is being the best defense ever.”
WHO SAID WE SCORED TOO SOON?
— New York Jets (@nyjets) October 15, 2023
Before last week, Bryce Hall hadn’t played more than five snaps in a game since the 2021 season. Tae Hayes has been signed to 14 different active rosters or practice squads since 2019 and hadn’t even joined the Jets until two weeks ago. James has bounced on and off the Jets practice squad since last year. These were the cornerbacks — along with nickel cornerback Michael Carter II — who were tasked with stopping Jalen Hurts, the Eagles quarterback and an MVP front-runner. In the first quarter, James broke up a Hurts pass in the end zone, diving to force the incompletion, and helping to hold the Eagles to a field goal.
At the end of the night, Hurts had thrown three interceptions — each of them worse than the last. The first one came in the second quarter when Jets defensive end Jermaine Johnson poked the ball out of Dallas Goedert’s hands as he tried to catch it and it flung right into the arms of defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.
In the fourth quarter, the Jets trailing 14-12, Johnson was there again, hitting Hurts as he threw. The ball floated up and Hall grabbed it, the second straight week he’s forced a turnover in a crucial moment.
But the Jets offense stalled, as it had for most of the afternoon. All of a sudden, the Eagles had the ball back with 4:43 left, still winning by two. They worked their way up to the 46-yard-line, killing the clock all the way down to the two-minute warning. The Jets were out of timeouts, with an offense that was struggling all day. The Jets expected the Eagles to run the ball on third-and-7, to kill the clock. Instead, they threw it.
Hurts made a bad throw.
Safety Tony Adams snared it and nearly ran it back for a touchdown. Instead, on the first play after, running back Breece Hall coasted in for an 8-yard touchdown, and Zach Wilson followed it with a laser to Randall Cobb for a two-point conversion. The Jets were beaten and bruised and battered, but they took the punches like Rocky Balboa, and outlasted a team that was supposed to kill them.
“This is a special unit,” Hall said. “I was telling some of the other guys, this is going to be a special, special story when it’s all said and done.”
Breece Hall gives the @nyjets the lead!
— NFL (@NFL) October 15, 2023
The Jets would have you believe that what happened Sunday was never in doubt.
“This team just faces adversity after adversity,” Johnson said. “We hear rat poison in our ears and for these guys to just go out there, tune it out, work their butts off in practice, training, meetings, everything — after all the negative things we hear, and all the negative things that happen to us, for us to go out there and do what we did is no surprise to me.”
The Jets had five sacks, 10 QB hits and held running back D’Andre Swift to 18 rushing yards on 10 carries — one of them a fumble in the second quarter, recovered by Quincy Williams. Through six games, the Jets faced a parade of some of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, past and present: Josh Allen, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Hurts.
Allen threw one touchdown and three interceptions. Mahomes threw one touchdown and two interceptions. Hurts threw one touchdown and three interceptions. Those were three of the betting favorites to win MVP before the season. The Jets stifled all of them.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising they’re 3-3 after all as they head into their bye week.
“These first six weeks we’ve played a gauntlet of quarterbacks and I know we haven’t gotten all wins,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said after the game, “but we embarrassed all of them.”
Now imagine what the Jets might look like if the offense would stop stalling out in the red zone. After Sunday, the Jets have the worst third-down conversion rate in the NFL, and second-worst touchdown rate in the red zone. The Jets’ offensive line allowed 14 pressures, per TruMedia, and 4 1/2 sacks, none worse than when Eagles defensive end Haason Reddick had a free run at Wilson on a bootleg, a brutal result in the red zone in the third quarter. It was a costly miscommunication — a receiver was supposed to be there for a quick throw — and pushed the Jets far enough back to force them to settle for a field goal. Again.
Imagine where they’d be without kicker Greg Zuerlein, who has made nine field goals the last two weeks as the offense keeps stalling out, mistakes and penalties killing drives that started off fast.
Now imagine where they could be with Rodgers if, somehow, he makes it back onto the field. This Jets team, even with Wilson at quarterback, is a legitimate threat to make the playoffs, to make some noise in the AFC.
That is true — and surprising, considering where things were when Rodgers went down in Week 1. Even after the win over the Buffalo Bills, it felt like all hope was lost. The blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys didn’t help. Neither did the one to a bad New England Patriots team in Week 3.
Many left them for dead. Consider Sunday’s win a statement.
“We can compete with any team in the league,” Breece Hall said.
“You see what we do on a week-in, week-out basis. How can you count us out?” defensive end John Franklin-Myers said. “Defensively, we’re gonna shut the door every time.”
For Johnson, it was never a doubt.
“We’re down guys, we got guys stepping up,” he said. “You are what you think you are, you are who you think you are.”
The Jets think they are the real deal. Now imagine if Rodgers comes back.
The carrot feels closer than ever.
(Photo of Tony Adams: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)
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