Saturday night, on the road in Dallas, New York needed more help.
Enter Quincy Enunwa and Kenbrell Thompkins, who had combined for 20 catches and 280 yards this season. Both of the little-used receivers came through with enormous, clutch catches in the fourth quarter as the Jets scrapped their way to a 19-16 win.
First, it was Enunwa, a 2014 sixth-round pick, who came free across the middle of the field on a third-and-14 and held onto a Fitzpatrick pass despite taking a shot. The reception covered 24 yards and set up a short Fitzpatrick-to-Decker TD that erased a Dallas lead in the fourth quarter.
Then, in the closing seconds it was Thompkins, the former Patriot and Raider who just signed with New York two months ago. With one minute left in a 13–13 game, Thompkins sprinted past talented rookie Byron Jones and hauled down a 43-yard completion—good enough to push the Jets into field-goal range for Randy Bullock's game-winner.
“We didn't play well in the first half, their defense played a really good game,” Fitzpatrick told the NFL Network. “But we just had all kinds of guys stepping up. ... Everybody's contributing and we've got a lot of confidence.”
For as badly as the Jets needed this game to bolster their playoff hopes, they showed little more life than the four-win Cowboys did for much of the night. New York was on the ropes in a game it couldn't afford to lose thanks to penalties, missed kicks, a brutal Fitzpatrick interception, and the little jolt of life given to Dallas thanks to Kellen Moore replacing a benched Matt Cassel at quarterback.
Fitzpatrick, though, delivered on both of the Jets' fourth-quarter possessions. Three plays before he stepped up away from pressure to find Enunwa, he rifled a dart into Marshall for 20 yards, pushing his team to the edge of the red zone.
The 33-year-old Fitzpatrick has never been to the postseason. He inched his team a step closer Saturday.
“It's all Fitz,” Marshall said on the postgame show. “The way he spinned the ball tonight was amazing, I'm so proud of him. The way he's leading our team on and off the field, we couldn't ask for a better quarterback.”
The Cowboys were eliminated (finally) from playoff contention with this latest loss, but their 4-10 record belies how competitive they have been most weeks, even without Tony Romo on the field. Their defense is playoff-caliber, held back by an utter lack of offensive punch.
So while it was unexpected to see the Jets trailing heading into the fourth quarter, it should not have come as a surprise that they found themselves in a hard-fought slugfest.
“These are the types of games we lost in the beginning and middle of the season,” said Jets coach Todd Bowles. “We grew as a team [tonight].”
Decker and Marshall still starred, of course. Decker's touchdown grab gave the outstanding duo 21 receiving TDs on the season, setting a new team record. Marshall finished the night with a game-high 74 yards receiving, while Decker followed in close order with 55.
Fitzpatrick knows he can turn to either veteran standout, at any point. There has been far more uncertainty behind those two this season.
Powell caught seven more passes, plus scored a rushing touchdown in Dallas, his third consecutive strong showing. But neither Enunwa nor Thompkins had carved out a consistent role in the offense prior to Week 15—they totaled one catch and 10 yards together in last week's win over Tennessee.
This is what it takes to reach the postseason in the NFL. Just look at the team leading New York in the AFC East standings, the defending champion Patriots. They have been hampered by key injuries all year long, only to have fill-ins help keep the train on track.
That the Jets were able to show some of the same resolve against Dallas gives a strong hint as to why they're currently holding a wild-card berth. Over the course of 16 games, there are going to be some nights that do not go according to plan; outings where it's all a little sluggish, as was the case for New York through about three quarters on Saturday night.
Sometimes, you just have to gut one out. And occasionally, you have to find an unexpected hero or two.
Should a potential playoff team be able to take down a last-place team with severe quarterback issues? Of course. The Jets might have let that opportunity slip away, however, had it not been for Enunwa and Thompkins.