By Mike Vaccaro
The ball was in the air, and on television you could see that it was passing the neon-green line signifying a reasonable field-goal target, and if you felt a familiar queasiness stirring in your gizzard … well, could anyone blame you? The Jets have invented some remarkable ways to lose through the years, across the decades.
But then a funny thing happened. The ball didn’t nestle safely between the numbers of anyone wearing a brown jersey. Instead, here was Ashtyn Davis, a green 21 against his white road jersey, stepping in front of Jacoby Brissett’s last pass. Sonofagun — the Jets were really going to win this game. They were going to complete the miracle.
“They left the door open a crack,” said Robert Saleh, the Jets head coach, who somehow remained composed on the outside even as unfettered jubilation had to have been bursting on the inside. “Just enough for us to break through.”
This was like watching a quintessential Jets game in a fun-house mirror. Any Jets fans with any reasonable amount of time served can rattle off 10 or 12 unloseable games the Jets have managed to lose, some in the very city, Cleveland, where the Jets were now celebrating a hard-to-fathom 31-30 victory over the disbelieving Browns.
In truth the Browns left a little more than a crack. Nick Chubb, brilliant most of the day (87 rushing yards, three touchdowns) stuck the crowbar in there first, getting greedy and scoring a needless TD with 1:55 to play and the Jets out of timeouts. Cleveland kicker Cade York stuck a few fingers in and widened it a few inches by shanking the PAT.
Then the entire Browns secondary jammed a bunch of their feet inside, leaving Jets tight end Corey Davis spectacularly uncovered for a 65-yard touchdown that really shouldn’t have mattered — except inside FirstEnergy Stadium, the 67,431 folks on hand began to feel the kind of unsettling vibes that have ruined Jets’ fans nervous systems from the Polo Grounds to Shea to Giants Stadium to MetLife.
“It was really weird how quiet the crowd got,” Jets quarterback Joe Flacco said, but again: it shouldn’t have mattered. The Browns were still up six. The Jets needed to convert an onside kick, and since the NFL changed the rules nobody converts onside kicks anymore.
The Jets converted the onside kick.
“I’m gonna smack my guy,” Will Parks told Justin Hardee just before Braden Mann faked right and squibbed left, “and you get the ball.”
Parks blasted Amari Cooper. Hardee got the ball. And somehow 67,431 people found a decibel level even lower than silent. They kicked in the door like Popeye Doyle.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Hardee said later.
From there? Joe Flacco turned back his watch to 2012 or so. The Browns’ defense kept retreating, kept allowing Flacco to complete short passes, kept allowing Jets receivers to slip out of bounds. And then, when offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur called a play into Flacco’s helmet on third-and-10, Browns’ 15, 30 seconds left an odd thing happened in the Jets’ huddle.
“It’s one of our staples,” he said.
He dropped back. He had time. The Browns’ safeties were playing soft. And just as he expected rookie receiver Garrett Wilson slipped into an open patch of green. Flacco hit him in stride, on the numbers. Wilson did the rest.
“It was the exact look we expected,” said Garett, the former Ohio State Buckeye, who left 22 tickets for family members — maybe the only 22 people uttering a sound at FirstEnergy as he crossed the goal line. Great things have been forecast for Wilson; he was eight catches and 102 yards and two TDs worth of great Sunday.
Flacco? The QB his teammates call “Grandpa” had 307 yards and four TDs.
“He’s seen the worst of times,” Saleh said, “and the best of times.”
These were the best of times, on so many levels, in so many ways, for this edition of the Jets. Were they handed a couple of gifts? They were. But they also seized the moment when the Browns insisted they do so. The first lead of the season came with 22 seconds to go in the game, and it allowed them to savor a September victory for the first time in 1,470 days.
“The guys kept believing and doing their jobs,” Flacco said, “and sometimes if you just worry about what’s in front of you, the outcome is what it is.”
If you are a Jets fan with some service time, you maybe wake up Monday morning still in the throes of disbelief. Games like this do happen. Too often they happen in reverse. Not this one. Not this time. This time, the Jets cashed the lottery ticket. Sonofagun.