EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- On paper, the Jets-Texans looked like a primetime dud. New York was coming off a 34-0 rout against San Francisco and will be without Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes for the rest of the season. Houston was 4-0, winning by an average margin of 15 points a game. Tickets in New York were reportedly going at a cut-rate price on the secondary market and the only drama was when the Jets were going to call on Tim Tebow as their fulltime quarterback.
The Texans started out following the script, jumping out to a 7-0 lead on their first drive of the game on a beautiful 34-yard touchdown pass from Matt Schaub to Owen Daniels. And the Texans immediately established their running game with a 46-yard run up the gut by Arian Foster. The Twitter-verse was warming up for the blowout that would finally lead to Tebow time. They never got it. Instead, the Jets fought hard all night and came up just short in a 23-17 loss.
Early in the game, the Jets seemed to be headed toward a repeat of last week's rout. Their porous run defense and lack of weapons on offense seemed like too much to overcome. But a funny thing happened before the seas parted to make way for the backup quarterback. With a receiving corps even loyal Jets fans barely recognize, New York starter Mark Sanchez engineered his own efficient scoring drive, capping it with a 27-yard touchdown to tight end Jeff Cumberland.
Jets coach Rex Ryan said despite the injuries and the blowout last week, he knew this game was going to be competitive. He also knew if they lined up and tried to go punch-for-punch with Houston, it wasn't going to work. Instead, Ryan pulled out all the stops to keep the game close.
"Whatever it takes," Ryan said. "Faking a punt in your own territory, going for it on fourth down in your own territory. I think when you ask your players to lay it out there and do whatever it takes to win, that's me included. I went for it."
Throwing to the likes of Jeremy Kerley, Chaz Schillens, Jason Hill and Clyde Gates, Sanchez has no proven weapons around him and still had at least enough success to keep the game close. He finished 14-31 for 230 yards, one touchdown and two picks -- one off a tip at the line of scrimmage and another that went through a receiver's hands.
"We're not worried what anybody else thinks," Sanchez said. "[The receivers] have been taking a lot of heat. Everybody's telling them that they can't play. I'm proud of the way they fought."
The Jets finally had some success with Tebow on special teams, converting a first down on a fake punt. And Tebow lofted a beautiful 35-yard pass that was dropped by Schillens. Ryan points to Tebow's run on the fake punt as the kind of play that will keep the Jets competitive.
"We have a guy in Tebow that gives you some opportunities," Ryan said. "I wouldn't rush us [on a punt]. We're crazy enough to fake it any time, no matter where the ball is."
Head coach Gary Kubiak saw a positive in how his team responded to its first real test of the season.
"They threw the kitchen sink at us," Kubiak said. "We got it all and we really were handling ourselves well. ... I'm very proud of our team. It's tough to go on the road Monday night and get it done, but we stood up and did it."
One of the reasons the Texans didn't panic is because they have the NFL's most dominant defensive player -- J.J. Watt. Batting down passes like Patrick Ewing in the Final Four at Georgetown, Watt controlled the line of scrimmage on pass plays. He had three tips, one that led to a game-changing interception at the end of the first half, one that he almost caught and one on the last play of the game.
"He's a beast," Texans linebacker Brooks Reed said. "He makes big plays and is a big reason this defense is so successful."
Watt also had a sack to increase his league-leading total to 8.5 for the season. When Watt doesn't get to the QB, he's still disruptive thanks to his ability to stick his hands into the passing lanes.
"You're not going to get a sack every play," Watt said. "It's another way to frustrate them. We're not surprised. It's something they work on."
The Texans' defense, however, suffered a major blow when linebacker Brian Cushing went out with a left knee injury. Houston doesn't have many holes, but depth has to be a concern. Last season, injuries cost them a chance to do any real damage in the AFC playoffs. They can probably make up for the loss of Cushing, but they have to hope they don't lose any more defensive stars if they hope to deliver on the Super Bowl hype that is building every week.
The Jets already have major injury concerns. Even though the receiving corps had some nice plays, Sanchez's lack of chemistry with the new guys was evident as well. Defensively, Antonio Cromartie did a great job in the No. 1 cornerback role, shutting down Andre Johnson. But with no Revis, the Jets weren't really able to rush enough players to scare Schaub.
But what the Jets did show on Monday night is something that was lacking in their two previous losses. They knew they were going against a better opponent and didn't back down.
For some Gang Green faithful, the outcome may be disappointing because it was so close. Sanchez was far from perfect. But if he came that close to leading the Jets past the undefeated Texans, Ryan is not going to pull him out of the lineup. He knows if he did that, he could never go back. For now, the Texans remain perfect and the world will have to wait at least one more week for Tebow time.