EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Deep down, Geno Smith knew he would have been absolved of this defeat. On account of being a rookie, the passer knew he would have been given a pass.
Why? The New York Jets have a rich tradition of losing games like these, that's why. With the team coming unglued, with penalty flags flying this way and that and with Rex Ryan ordering up absurd challenges and leaving himself without one when he needed it most, you could've filled a Greyhound bus with former Jets who would've surrendered to the inevitable.
Starting with Mark Sanchez, of course, the quarterback Smith replaced.
The Buffalo Bills rallied from a 20-6 deficit, although rallied might be stretching it. They kept sending in their poor field goal kicker, Dan Carpenter, to try to boot their way to a comeback in an endless, barely watchable game, at least until EJ Manuel finally made a play in the fourth quarter, hitting his tight end for a 33-yard touchdown and then making good on the tying two-point conversion.
The Jets were an absolute mess on that drive, low-lighted by not one, but two, personal fouls from Kyle Wilson and two Bills fumbles nullified by the home team's foolishness. The clear Manuel fumble ruled otherwise by the refs couldn't be challenged by ol' Rex, who had inexplicably red-flagged a third-and-1 spot in a desperate grab for three inches he had no chance of winning.
"I've got to do a better job of making those challenges," Ryan said.
Yes, he does. Especially when his reckless use of them granted Manuel the break he needed and put the quarterback drafted 23 slots behind Buffalo's in a perilous place.
"We knew we had to score," Smith said.
If he had the hot hand in leading the Jets to a 17-6 lead in the first half -- throwing for 187 yards and a touchdown -- Smith had cooled down considerably. The Jets had lost their minds (they would commit a franchise record 20 penalties for 168 yards), their fans were fretting out loud and there wasn't much reason to believe Smith would save his team from a 1-2 start.
For 10 days, he'd sat on his three-interception fourth quarter in Foxborough, inspiring some to actually wonder if Matt Simms should start warming up in the bullpen. Never mind that Buffalo's Doug Marrone, the former Syracuse coach, had been something of a Geno stopper in college, beating his West Virginia teams three times; these were the big leagues, and Smith was only the ace of the rotation because his coach, Ryan, got Sanchez clobbered in a preseason appearance the four-year starter had no business making.
So from his own 15 with 10 minutes and change left inside MetLife Stadium, Smith wasn't inspiring visions of greatness. On a day when the Giants and Yankees likely lost their seasons, when even Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera couldn't pitch their way to victory, Smith looked like just another New Yorker booked for an unhappy ending.
But just when you expected a 22-year-old quarterback to look at the Buffalo defense and see the Greek alphabet, Smith saw clarity and opportunity and, well, Santonio Holmes lined up against an overwhelmed backup corner named Justin Rogers.
More than anything, Smith saw a backyard fantasy come to life.
"With the game on the line," he said, "the ball in your hands, that's the moment you live for. That's the moment you dream of as a kid."
It only took two plays for the rookie to suddenly make a Peyton Manning, Tom Brady play. Smith dropped back, quickly looked off the safety, Jim Leonhard, and fired a sideline strike toward Holmes and Rogers, sprinting together step for step. Rogers had his back to the ball, and Holmes had been around long enough to play the role of decoy, to act as if the pass was being delivered somewhere else.
Holmes didn't light up his eyes and throw up his hands until the spiral was on top of him, and by that time, it was too late for Rogers to disrupt the play. Out of nowhere, a receiver who has caused more trouble than he's been worth as a Jet was running free for a 69-yard score, looking more like Big Ben's Super Bowl MVP.
"I just wanted to give him a good chance, give him a good ball," Smith said.
The quarterback gave Holmes both.
"He can be as great as he wants to be," said Holmes, whose 154 receiving yards were a career high.
Smith completed 16 of 29 passes for 331 yards and accounted for three touchdowns, including one on the ground, though he smudged his own artwork with a pair of interceptions that had rookie mistakes written all over them. In his postgame news conference, Smith said he hates to use the rookie thing as an excuse, an encouraging admission from a kid who appears to have the requisite toughness to make it in this market.
When Smith carried it across the goal line in the first quarter, he absorbed two hard hits on the 8-yard run. When he threw his first touchdown pass, a 51-yarder to Stephen Hill (at Rogers' expense), Smith stood firm in the pocket as he took a direct hit from the charging 303-pound tackle Kyle Williams.
"He got a good shot on me," Smith said, "but it wasn't too bad. I was more worried about placing the ball in the right spot." Good stuff. As was Smith's decision to keep picking on Rogers, throwing over the top rather than settling for a conservative small-ball approach. Smith still has work to do on his deep throws, but it's already clear he's much more than a college quarterback who threw quick outs to Tavon Austin and watched him race 60 yards.
"The kid hung in there," Ryan said.
He hung in there long enough to overcome Rex's coaching, and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, to become the first quarterback to win a game despite that staggering sum of penalties since Cleveland's Otto Graham pulled it off in 1951.
Smith, the second-round pick, maintained he took no satisfaction in going 1-0 against the first-rounder, Manuel, and nobody on the winning side cared if it wasn't a convincing claim.
The Jets were merely happy to own a 2-1 record Sunday night and to leave their building with a rookie quarterback unafraid to win a game he would've been allowed to lose.