- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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To borrow a phrase from Terrell Owens, the talk-show host who moonlights as a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jets were just an average team for two-plus quarters Thursday night at the New Meadowlands Stadium. But the man with the common name made two uncommon plays, Smith scoring on two long touchdowns -- covering 142 yards of turf -- to lift his team from mediocrity to victory, 26-10.
Those two plays were beauties, all right -- a 53-yard run and an 89-yard kickoff return in which he ran the final 50 yards with only one shoe -- but don't be fooled into thinking all is right with the Jets. They will face the New England Patriots in 10 days -- a pair of 9-2 blood rivals -- and they will have to raise their game a couple of notches to beat Belichick and Brady.
The Jets were lackluster on offense, committed eight penalties and let the demoralized Bengals (2-9) hang around far too long. Mark Sanchez suffered his worst game in five weeks, so disappointed in his performance that he acted as though the Jets (9-2) had lost.
Sanchez knows he has to be better to beat Tom Brady. The Jets have a lot of cleaning up to do, but that, of course, didn't stop the ever-confident Rex Ryan from some pre-New England trash talking.
"Our football team believes we can beat anybody, and we're going to prove it," the coach said. "We've won eight in a row on the road, and we plan on making it nine."
Surely, that quote will end up on Bill Belichick's bulletin board. Or maybe this dripping-with-sarcasm quote will:
"Clearly, they're the best team in football. That's what all the experts say, except me."
No one can talk the talk like Ryan, but now it's his job to be a problem solver. We're not talking major issues here -- after all, the maligned defense responded magnificently -- but the Jets can't seem to play a complete, all-three-phases-clicking football game. That they couldn't do it against the Bengals should be a concern. The look on Sanchez's face said everything. A reporter had to remind him the Jets are 9-2, enjoying their best start since 1986.
"Keeping things in perspective, I should be doing backflips in here -- thrilled, excited, and I am. I honestly am," Sanchez said. "But as a competitor, as someone who really cares about playing well for this team, it's hard. It's hard. I know I have to be better. I know we should've won this game going away."
Sanchez (16-for-28, 166 yards) threw a horrible interception, took a couple of unnecessary sacks and missed a handful of open receivers. How the Jets managed only 166 yards against the Bengals' injury-decimated secondary is a mystery.
One touchdown was a gift from Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who, for some reason, opted not to challenge a muffed punt by Andre Caldwell that was recovered by the Jets at the Cincinnati 14-yard line. Lewis looked as though he was having trouble locating his red challenge flag, but he insisted afterward that his staff upstairs instructed him not to challenge.
It was a mistake, and the Jets capitalized, with Sanchez hitting Santonio Holmes for a 13-yard touchdown to make it 17-7. The Bengals closed to within 17-10. But Smith, who earlier scored from 53 yards on a routine end around (with two shoes), put it away with his kickoff return -- with only his right shoe.
"All that running in the backyard with no shoes helped me," Smith joked afterward.
The difference in the game was two plays by Smith ("Our X factor," Holmes said) and the Lewis faux pas on the nonchallenge. Take away those, and who knows? It might have been another 60-minute dogfight.
"Our efforts from the last few games won't get it done against New England," tight end Dustin Keller said. "The Patriots are a great team."
Sanchez remembers his last trip to Foxborough, although he'd rather not. He threw four interceptions.
"You can't make mistakes against those guys," he said. "If you do, you're in trouble. I had no regard for the ball [last year]."
On the positive side, the Jets' defense was back to being the intimidating unit that wrecked the NFL last season. It recorded three sacks and two interceptions, and Darrelle Revis turned Owens into a overpaid slouch. Some of the swaggerlicious attitude was back. The Jets held the Bengals to 34 total yards in the second half.
"Obviously, it wasn't perfect," linebacker Calvin Pace said, "but we're back to where we were last year."
They'll need every bit of that defense because Brady & Co. are averaging 35 points in their past three games, and there's a little guy named Danny Woodhead who'd love to exact a little payback on the Jets.
The Jets' past five wins have come against opponents with a combined record of 14-38. Now comes the big-boy part of the schedule, and the play has to get better to beat the Patriots.
"I don't know," Ryan said, "maybe they'll have to play a lot better, too."