- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The situation for the New York Jets wasn't totally hopeless. But it wasn't exactly brimming with promise either: no timeouts, only 49 seconds left and 72 yards to cover after Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez had just thrown a bad interception on the Jets' previous possession.
But now Sanchez was singing to himself, literally "singing to myself," he said, on the sidelines to relax as he waited to get the ball back with the Jets trailing by four. And Santonio Holmes, the receiver who was about to team up with Sanchez to pull out a Jets win for the third time in four weeks, this time after the Jets' defense had pitched in to help blow their 16-point fourth-quarter lead? Holmes was visualizing almost exactly what happened next.
"When we made the [last play] call I was kind of licking my lips," said Holmes, thinking back to how Sanchez saw him cutting toward the left back corner of the end zone and sent a beautiful, looping rainbow of a pass arcing over his right shoulder from 6 yards out with 10 seconds to play, marking the third time in four weeks the two of them combined to lift the Jets to an improbable, electrifying win -- this one a 30-27 comeback over the Texans Sunday at New Meadowlands Stadium.
"Aw, it's just playing football -- just pitching and catching a little bit," Holmes added with a laugh.
Sanchez-to-Holmes wasn't among the most feared passing combos in the NFL six weeks ago. Holmes had just finished serving his league-mandated four-game suspension to start this season, and Sanchez, the Jets' second-year quarterback, was still struggling to keep his completion percentage above 55 percent.
But no passing duo in the league is more dangerous right now.
In little over a month, Holmes has established himself as what Jets linebacker Calvin Pace calls "the home run hitter we thought we're getting" when the Steelers gave up on Holmes and traded their former Super Bowl MVP to New York for a fifth-round draft pick. And Sanchez, now more than ever, looks like the franchise quarterback the Jets projected him to be -- it's just happening faster than even the Jets dared hope.
"You realize this young man, this is just his 25th [NFL] game," Jets coach Rex Ryan raved about Sanchez after the game.
"We'd like to be in the situation where we win these games a little bit easier than we are ... [But] again, if I have to apologize for it every week from here on out I will, all the way to the Super Bowl."
The Jets haven't yet established themselves as the clear-cut AFC front-runner for the Super Bowl. They still have too many breakdowns and maddening mistakes to proclaim them that, even if they did improve to 8-2 Sunday. But they're doggedly staying in the conversation.
With every one of these rabbit-out-of-the-hat wins, the Jets are also answering the question about whether they're lucky or good. They're good, all right. Damn good. But the biggest surprise is it has been the Jets' offense -- and not Ryan's once-vaunted defense -- that's getting it done. For now, anyway, it's Sanchez and the Miracles that are carrying this team. If the defense ever approaches last year's level the Jets could finally call themselves a great team.
"We had to pick up our defense again," Ryan said.
The Jets have now either tied, won or saved six of their eight wins in the last 90 seconds. Sunday marked the second straight game that Sanchez hit Holmes with the winning touchdown on the Jets' last offensive play.
Last week against Cleveland, Holmes took a pass from Sanchez, split two defenders for a 37-yard catch and touchdown run with 16 seconds left in overtime. The Sunday before that, Holmes' 52-yard reception set up the Jets' game-winning field goal at Detroit. On Oct. 17, just Holmes' second game back, Holmes drew a 46-yard pass interference penalty with seconds left against Denver to set up a 2-yard run by LaDainian Tomlinson that gave the Jets a 24-20 victory.
Sanchez has had something to do with all those heroics, of course. Sunday, he coolly dropped in a pass between double coverage to Braylon Edwards down the right sideline for a 42-yard gain. And that set up the Jets at the 6-yard line before Holmes' winning catch.
"I was more surprised with the throw than Braylon getting open," Holmes said.
"Incredible throw," Tomlinson agreed. "That's a tough window to put that ball in, and he threw the ball like I've never seen before."
It would be a lie to say Sanchez is starting to make these comebacks look routine. They've all been too scintillating or unlikely for that. But Sanchez is starting to make it look as if anything is possible for the Jets. And it's no coincidence that his season has taken off once Holmes got back into the lineup that already had weapons like Edwards and Tomlinson and tight end Dustin Keller.
Sanchez entered Sunday's game with more passing yards (960) than anyone in the NFL the previous three weeks and he added another 315 yards Sunday.
Good as Holmes is, even Holmes says it has been Sanchez's growth and determination to run the offense "to perfection" that's driving the Jets right now. Holmes told a story about how Sanchez runs down the field at practices during the week to jump on him or Edwards or Keller when they aren't where they're supposed to be. He raved about how Sanchez continues to bury himself in the film room so his command of the offense is impeccable. "He's a leader," Holmes said.
Sunday, not even a fumble by Shonn Greene and then that wounded duck of an interception that Sanchez threw right to the Texans with 1:52 left made him or the Jets panic and think the miracles had finally run out.
"Well, we always feel like we can dig ourselves out of a hole," Sanchez said. "But the only problem is you can't come back when the clock's run out. We're cutting it awfully close."
A Thanksgiving night showdown with Cincinnati is next, just four days away.
Smiling now, Sanchez said, "Hopefully we won't need the defibrillators four weeks in a row."
Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes is becoming a lethal combination.