Rex Ryan kept repeating one word in his press conference after the Jets' 30-28 win over Atlanta: "Fearless."
It was an appropriate assessment of his football team and, more to the point, of his rookie quarterback. Geno Smith found himself on a large stage Monday night with a difficult task before him. On the opposite sideline stood one of the league's top QBs in Matt Ryan, who had never lost back-to-back games at home.
Smith answered him shot-for-shot all evening, then one-upped the Falcons' star in the final minute, leading a beautiful drive to set up the game-winning field goal.
"I thought he did an outstanding job for us the entire game," Ryan said of Smith. "I was impressed with the fact we used how many receivers in that drive. When Geno had the protection, he delivered it."
By at least one standard, Smith was perfect in the first half. He headed into halftime with a flawless 158.3 QB rating, thanks in no small part to a pair of touchdown passes. The Falcons counter-punched after the break, finally finding a way to dial up some pressure and get in Smith's grill.
The Jets' 17-7 lead dwindled, then their 27-14 cushion disappeared entirely. Ryan's TD toss to Levine Toilolo -- of all people -- thrust Atlanta in front for the first time in hours, 28-27 with 1:54 left.
Smith never even flinched. He quickly connected on three straight passes for 34 yards -- two to Stephen Hill, one to Jeremy Kerley. Then, with Atlanta's D-line again pushing into the pocket, Smith escaped the rush and outraced Osi Umenyiora to the sideline for a 9-yard pickup.
One more first down after that left Nick Folk with a 43-yarder for the win. He drilled it ... and suddenly, the Jets are 3-2 and very much in the playoff hunt behind a rookie QB who's growing up fast.
"My confidence is always sky high," Smith told ESPN after the game. "Nothing can bring me down."
His Week 4 flop certainly could have done just that. Smith turned it over four times in that game, a 38-13 loss to Tennessee, the worst of those miscues coming on a fumble in his own end zone for a Titans touchdown.
Smith entered Monday's game with a whopping 11 turnovers in four games, looking more like the player who failed to separate himself in the Jets' QB derby during the preseason than one on the verge of a breakthrough.
But football can be a surprising game. Rookies often are the most schizophrenic of all. So just as Smith's mistake-prone ways seemed ready to threaten any hopes the Jets had of hanging around in the AFC East, he responded with the best performance of his young career.
"It's a mindset," Smith said. "I made it my duty to come out here and not put the ball on the ground, not put my team in jeopardy."
Can Smith harness this effort and carry it forward? If so, then Ryan's Jets might be a group to be reckoned with over the season's next three months.
Monday's win was far from a fluky one. Smith finished the job late, but it was the New York defense that kept the train on its tracks over the first three quarters. Led by Muhammad Wilkerson, rookie Sheldon Richardson and a relentless front, the Jets blew up countless Atlanta plays.
"You know what, I'm glad we won this way," Ryan said. "I am glad we won this way, because it took every one of us."
That's the only way the Jets could have pulled off this surprise. Toss out the records, because the consensus was that the desperate Falcons would find a way to win Monday -- find some method to unnerve Smith and keep him stuck in an error-filled nightmare.
"We simply came up short," said Falcons coach Mike Smith, possibly running out of answers as his team slipped to 1-4, four games back of New Orleans in the NFC South.
There will be plenty of blame to go around in Atlanta, too. The offensive line played well only in spurts, the pass rush was nonexistent in the first half, the secondary did nothing right late, and injuries continued to mount.
All that said, the fact of the matter is that the better team won Monday.
And though Smith may not be the better quarterback, in a comparison with Ryan, he delivered the knockout punch ... whereas Ryan's fourth-quarter heroics could only stagger the visiting Jets.
"For his focus and the rest of our guys," Ryan said, "we played fearless."