The Atlanta Falcons already had their playoff hopes dashed and were getting manhandled by the New York Jets’ top-ranked defense.
No contest, right? Not quite.
Tony Gonzalez caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan on a fourth-down play with 1:38 remaining to lift the Falcons to a 10-7 victory that seriously damaged the Jets’ postseason chances Sunday.
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"As a man taking pride in what you do for a living and loving what you do," Gonzalez said, "you owe it to yourself and the fans and the organization to go out there and play your butt off. That’s what we did."
A day after the Falcons (7-7) were eliminated from playoff contention by Dallas’ win over New Orleans, they were able to play spoiler against the stunned Jets (7-7).
"Unfortunately, a lot of bad things happened today," New York wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said.
Ryan, starting after missing two games with a toe injury, couldn’t do much against the Jets’ defense for most of the game — but New York’s offense also sputtered at the cold and windy Meadowlands and failed to put it away. Mark Sanchez threw three interceptions, and Jay Feely missed a field goal, had another blocked and Kellen Clemens mishandled a snap on another attempt. There were also a few costly penalties.
"It’s tough to swallow," Sanchez said. "It’s never good to play that poorly. We played well in spurts and then we’d turn the ball over."
What made it more frustrating: things seemed to be falling into place for Rex Ryan’s Jets, who had their three-game win streak snapped. Two teams New York is chasing in the AFC race — Jacksonville and Miami — lost, which would have put the Jets in great shape going into their game at undefeated Indianapolis next Sunday. Instead, New York is left to wonder what if?
"They didn’t have anything to play for other than to ruin our season," Jets safety Jim Leonhard said. "They came out and outexecuted and outplayed us."
With the Falcons facing third-and-9 from their 42, Roddy White had a 16-yard catch and Atlanta moved up 15 more yards on a facemask penalty on Donald Strickland. Jason Snelling followed with a 20-yard run up the middle to the 7. After Snelling’s 1-yard run, Ryan threw incomplete to White in the end zone, and again to Gonzalez on a pass that was nearly picked off by Darrelle Revis.
With the game on the line, Ryan found Gonzalez at the front of the end zone for the go-ahead score.
"They were doing a pretty good job of taking me out of that final drive," Gonzalez said. "Then on the last play, I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re going zone here and I might have a shot here to get open."’
Frustrated Jets fans in the upper deck tossed snow, the remnants of a major snowstorm in the Northeast, and booed loudly after the score. There were 29 fans ejected and one arrested throughout the game for throwing snow.
It was another late-game score allowed by New York, which blew leads against Miami (twice), Jacksonville and Buffalo earlier this season.
"They shouldn’t be down there if we’re the top-ranked defense and we’re as good as we think we are," Leonhard said. "It never should have happened."
The Jets had one final shot at a comeback, but an unneccessary roughness penalty on Alan Faneca hampered the chances. Facing a third-and-13 from the Jets 21, Sanchez was picked off for the second time by Brent Grimes to seal it.
"We fought and had to scratch to do it, but we got the job done," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.
The Jets could’ve put the game out of reach, but the offense mustered little other than Braylon Edwards’ 65-yard touchdown catch. Sanchez, starting after missing a game with a sprained right knee and playing with braces on both knees, was 18 for 32 for 226 yards.
Ryan finished 16 for 34 for 152 yards for the Falcons, still in contention to post back-to-back winning records for the first time in their 44-year history.
New York got on the scoreboard early as James Ihedigbo tipped Michael Koenen’s punt and gave the ball to the Jets at their 35. On the next play, Sanchez reared back and fired a pretty pass that hit Edwards in stride for a 7-3 lead with 2:48 left in the opening quarter.
The Jets had a chance to increase their lead with a 19-yard field goal with 6:40 left in the half, but Clemens mishandled a low snap and Feely never had a chance to kick.
The Jets wasted another scoring opportunity when Feely was wide right on a 38-yard attempt as time expired in the first half.
Matt Bryant was wide left on a 48-yard attempt with 10:10 remaining for Atlanta.
Looking to make it 10-3, Feely’s 37-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Chauncey Davis with 4:27 left off a high snap.
Notes: Falcons RB Michael Turner started after missing the last two games with an ankle injury, but Smith said he was hurt again on his first carry. … Jets RB Thomas Jones, who came in fourth in the NFL in rushing, finished with 52 yards on 19 carries. … Thomas DeCoud had an interception for the Falcons.