|Jim McIsaac / Getty Images|
|While the Jets resorted to trickery, the Broncos pounded the ball with rookie Peyton Hillis.|
So, the Jets opened here with a three-and-out possession: A Thomas Jones 4-yard run followed by two Brett Favre incomplete passes.
The Broncos get it, are forced to punt, and the Jets have it back at their own 14. Five plays later, after Jones had 1-yard run for a first down, the Jets insert receiver Brad Smith at quarterback. Smith is in the shotgun.
He runs right and pitches a reverse to receiver Jericho Cotchery. Cotchery scurries to get it and the ball bounces on the turf. Denver safety Vernon Fox gets it and scampers 23 yards for a touchdown. There is 8:41 left in the first quarter.
"That play was huge for us," Broncos receiver Brandon Stokley said. "It was not only a turnover for our defense, but it was also points for our defense. It gave us all something to ride. It got everybody rolling."
Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard said: "That play gave us momentum. Momentum led to confidence. Confidence led to big plays all around for us."
The question for the Jets was why?
Why so exotic so early against a defense that has struggled mightily all season? Why not more and more and more of Thomas Jones? He would run by game's end 16 times for 138 yards (that is 8.6 yards gained per pop). He would score on a 59-yard touchdown to tie the game, 7-7, and score on a 29-yard run to pull the Jets within 17-14 in the second quarter.
Jones ran it 16 times total -- but Broncos rookie back Peyton Hillis ran it 22 times. Favre threw 43 passes. Favre averaged 5.4 yards per pass, more than 3 fewer yards than Jones averaged on his runs.
That dipsy-doodle, razzle-dazzle by the Jets on a flip, reverse run with a wet ball on a wet field with the game barely old against a defense that had not yet established it could stop the Jets offense mano a mano cost them plenty.
"The same thing with the ball-handling, it didn't feel like it affected their ball-handling," Jets coach Eric Mangini said in explaining his team's approach. "They didn't seem to put the ball on the ground. They seemed to catch the ball cleanly every time they had an opportunity to do that. Whenever you do a play like that, with the exchanges, it's crucial in getting the ball first."
Hey, "a play like that" was totally unnecessary at that juncture of the game, without having tried to gorge the Denver defense with Jones, relentlessly. And even if the Jets were insistent on running that kind of play right then, a simple hand-off from Smith to Cotchery on the reverse rather than a flippant pitch would have been far more sensible, especially given the weather conditions.
"Coming around, I just couldn't get a grip on the ball," Cotchery said. "Brad made a good toss to me. The ball was slick, but in these times when we add the elements you just have to focus in more."
The Jets tricked themselves.
"I saw some of the Giants-Jets Super Bowl talk," said Broncos linebacker Jamie Winborn. "And that the Jets are the best in the AFC and that stuff. I don't know whether or not they got a little full of themselves. But I do know they tried to trick us there and it was early for that. If it works, maybe they have us off-balance the whole game. But it didn't and in this weather it was a ton of risk."
And Denver gained the reward.
They were seven points up on the Jets and felt they could unleash Jay Cutler and his passing weapons, and the surprising Hillis' tough-nosed runs just enough to keep the Jets at bay. The Broncos first half included Cutler's 59-yard TD pass to receiver Eddie Royal, two Denver field goals and a Hillis 1-yard scoring run that helped the Broncos build a 27-14 halftime lead.
Denver won the second half 7-3, and twice in the fourth quarter the Denver defense denied the Jets on fourth-down plays. One was a fourth-and-3 early at the Denver 39, the other a fourth-and-4 late from the Denver 4. No Jets points. And on the early one, the fourth-and-3? A Favre 40-yard pass down the right sideline meant for Cotchery failed. Short yardage needed, but another "trick" by the Jets that failed.
"With the players we do have left who are healthy, we have to come out, especially the veterans, and just make plays," Broncos cornerback Dre' Bly said. Bly did. He intercepted Favre by using a "press-bail" tactic.
Bly pressed receiver Laveranues Coles at the snap, but bailed out quickly and ran down the sideline with Coles, intercepting a pass where, in the end, it looked like Bly was the intended receiver. This occurred with 7:48 left before halftime. That pick set up the Hillis 1-yard score that made it 24-14.
"Our defense has been playing like a roller coaster," Bly said. "We've had trouble getting off the field on third downs. But this was an aggressive game by our defense. This league is funny, man. Things can change so fast."
Though the Jets slipped to 8-4, they remain in first place in the AFC East.
The Broncos (7-5) just moved another step ahead of meager San Diego in the AFC West.
We know that the Jets are capable of big things. We know that when they play cohesive football they can be beyond dangerous.
We have long thought the Denver defense was dead. Very few thought the Denver defense had a game like this in it.
With the way Cutler and the Broncos offense can wing it, all season long the Broncos have longed for their defense to chime in. Step in. Not just for a play or two or even a game or two. But play winning defense with consistency.
In this game -- ignited by an errant flip -- it did.
"I think we might have caught them sleeping," Broncos tight end Daniel Graham said. "We put up some good numbers against a good defense. This is how we can play when we hold on to the ball and not turn it over. We can move it, score it."
And do it enhanced when the Denver defense gets the scoring started.