ATLANTA — Ridiculed during the preseason, the New York Jets are exceeding expectations.
Rookie quarterback Geno Smith tossed three touchdown passes and led a drive in the final two minutes to set up Nick Folk’s winning field goal in the Jets’ 30-28 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday at the Georgia Dome.
After throwing eight interceptions in his four NFL starts, Smith did not turn the ball over against the Falcons. The rookie out of West Virginia completed 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards with touchdowns to Jeff Cumberland, Jeremy Kerley and Kellen Winslow.
Smith completed each of his five throws on the decisive 56-yard drive, and he had a key 8-yard scramble that helped set up Folk’s 43-yard field goal as time expired.
“I’m glad we won this way, because it took every one of us,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “We played fearless. Even our kicker was fearless. As soon as we got the ball after they scored (to take the lead), there wasn’t one person standing on that sideline who didn’t think we were going to drive down and score.”
Winslow’s touchdown in the back corner of the end zone put the Jets up 27-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Matt Ryan led two late scoring drives and gave the Falcons a 28-27 lead with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo with 1:54 to play.
Julio Jones made a spectacular one-handed grab, and Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez on fourth down to extend the go-ahead drive. The Falcons also benefited from a defensive holding call on a fourth down during the march.
After a troublesome preseason that saw quarterback Mark Sanchez go down with a shoulder injury, expectations for the Jets were tempered. New York was an underdog at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season opener and a double-digit underdog to the Falcons on Monday. There were calls for coach Rex Ryan’s job before the season even began.
A month later, the Jets (3-2) head home to play the winless Pittsburgh Steelers while sitting just a game back of the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
“It doesn’t matter. With us, all we care about is the Jets fan and what’s inside our walls,” Rex Ryan said. “Outsiders are going to say what they’re going to say, and they’ve already spoken, when they picked us 32nd in the league. But it doesn’t matter. We just care about ourselves, and we care about our Jets fans.”
The Falcons (1-4) enter their bye week on a three-game losing streak — the first of the Matt Ryan era.
“You get what you earn in this league, and we haven’t earned those wins,” Matt Ryan said. “Regardless of how you feel, it’s where you’re at. Certainly, I feel that we’re a talented football team. We’ve been right in those games, we just haven’t come out come out on the right side of them. We just have to keep plugging away.”
Matt Ryan completed 36 of 45 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. Gonzalez made 10 catches for 97 yards, and Jones added eight grabs for 99 yards.
What we learned about the Jets
1. Quarterback Geno Smith should be able to build off the best performance of his career. He looked extremely poised on the game-winning drive. “Two minutes is plenty of time,” Smith said. “All we needed was a field goal in that situation, so I was just sticking to my reads, sticking to my fundamentals.”
2. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is a difference-maker. Wilkerson had a sack and a forced fumble that set up a field goal late in the third quarter. Wilkerson finished with seven tackles, two of them behind the line of scrimmage. “He’s just a great football player, a tremendous player,” said Rex Ryan.
What we learned about the Falcons
1. Atlanta’s problem is easy to see: The Falcons are missing key players on both sides of the ball to injury. The absence of running back Steven Jackson appears to be the biggest loss. Jackson missed all but one series of the past three games with a hamstring injury. Without him, the Falcons managed very little success on the ground. Some reports indicate Jackson will remain sidelined until at least Week 7.
2. Tony Gonzalez is not only the best tight end ever, but he is also the one the all-time great receivers in general. Gonzalez caught 10 passes for 97 yards Monday. He caught a pass for the 200th consecutive game, joining Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the only players to accomplish that feat.
What the Jets said
“If (Bilal) Powell is not the most underrated player in this league, I don’t know who is. What a tremendous player.” — Coach Rex Ryan, after Powell gained 38 yards on 12 carries, including 6 yards on the last play that set up the Jets’ game-winning field goal.
What the Falcons said
“They did a good job, stacking the box and getting in the backfield. We knew their front seven was good and were tough against the run. It’s my job to punch it in on the 1-yard line. I got to do my best to get it in the end zone.” — Running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who was stuffed at the goal line on the final play of the first half.