The New York Jets weren’t supposed to be able to win this game in this city, not with this quarterback.
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Somehow they did, and the playoffs are looking like a great possibility because of it.
Mark Sanchez stood up to the pressure created by the Steelers’ defense and his team’s two-game losing streak, scrambling for the Jets’ first offensive touchdown in 12 quarters and leading a decisive field-goal drive as New York beat Pittsburgh 22-17 on Sunday.
The Jets (10-4) held on to win even as Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers (10-4) from their own 8 to New York’s 10 in the final 2:08, only to throw incomplete on the game’s final two plays.
Roethlisberger repeatedly kept the drive going, finding rookie Emmanuel Sanders for 29 yards on third-and-24, Mike Wallace for 18 on third-and-10 and Antonio Brown for 16 on third-and-10. The Steelers had to go for a touchdown rather than settling for a field goal because Mewelde Moore was tackled in the end zone for a safety with 2:38 remaining.
The Jets won in Pittsburgh for the first time after going 0-7 there since the 1970 merger. Only two NFL teams have longer winless streaks in an opposing city during that span.
Sanchez fooled the NFL’s best run defense by faking a handoff before racing into the end zone untouched on a tying 7-yard TD run in the third quarter. Before that, Pittsburgh had taken its first lead at 17-10 on Rashard Mendenhall’s 2-yard run.
The Jets ran for 106 yards against a defense that came in allowing only 60 yards per game.
The Steelers, winners of their previous four, shook off Brad Smith’s 97-yard kickoff return on the game’s opening play to take that lead but, playing without injured defensive star Troy Polamalu, fell back into a tie for the AFC North lead with Baltimore.
Pittsburgh still owns the tiebreaker and will win the division if it beats Carolina and Cleveland in its final two games.
Sanchez, rallying the Jets from demoralizing losses to the Patriots (45-3) and Dolphins (10-6) that raised speculation they might be headed to a 2008-like playoff collapse, followed his TD run by hitting Braylon Edwards for 16 yards on a key third-and-9 play. That completion led to Nick Folk’s go-ahead 34-yard field goal on a snow-splattered turf with 10:07 remaining. Folk hit earlier from 25 yards.
Sanchez went 19 of 29 for 170 yards, with Edwards making eight catches for 100 yards, as New York won in one of the NFL’s most difficult road venues in December despite being outgained 378-276.
An 11-play Jets drive didn’t produce any points but wound down valuable time and, after the Jets punted, former Pittsburgh high school star Jason Taylor blew through the left side of Pittsburgh’s offensive line to tackle Moore for the safety.
Still, the Jets weren’t in the clear in a game they desperately needed to win. They couldn’t move the ball after the ensuing free kick, forcing them to hold off one last desperation drive by a quarterback, Roethlisberger, who has led a dozen and a half such drives to win games.
Long before that, Smith’s kickoff return directly in front of Pittsburgh’s bench got the Jets off to a promising start. No Steelers defender got a hand on Smith during the Jets’ NFL-leading 14th kickoff return touchdown since 2001.
The Steelers gave up a league-high four such touchdowns last season, but this was the first against them this season.
The Jets missed a chance to go up by two scores when a holding call negated Sanchez’s completion to former Steelers star Santonio Holmes at the Pittsburgh 5. Holmes, the Super Bowl MVP two seasons ago, had six catches for 40 yards.
Roethlisberger (23 of 44, 264 yards) then put together one of Pittsburgh’s best drives of the season, a 16-play possession that took up more than half of the second quarter and was completed by a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth.
Spaeth filled in as the primary tight end in place of Heath Miller (concussion), who sat out a second successive game.
Sanchez then found Edwards behind cornerback Bryant McFadden for 38 yards, leading to Folk’s 25-yarder. Shaun Suisham tied it at 10 with 33 seconds left in the half.
Mendenhall ran for 100 yards on 17 carries, only his second 100-yard effort in 11 games. Wallace had seven catches for 102 yards.