ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, oft-criticized for having a noodle arm, stared down his nemesis -- big, bad Rex Ryan -- and blew holes in Ryan's beloved defense, delivering the best long-passing day of his long career on Thursday night.
With a performance that evoked images of the old AFL days, Fitzpatrick passed for 374 yards and one touchdown, lifting the New York Jets to a 37-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. It's not an exaggeration to say he saved their season. An 0-2 start would've been crippling for the Jets, who now begin a brutal four-game stretch.
This was a statement game for Fitzpatrick, who imploded on this field last Jan. 3 in what he called the most disappointing loss of his career. His fourth-quarter meltdown, which cost them a playoff spot, haunted him throughout the offseason. During the run-up to this game, he was bombarded with questions about his history of futility against Ryan-coached defenses. With a 1-8 record, you had to wonder if there was a little Rex in his giant brain, taunting the Harvard grad.
Fitzpatrick carried those demons into the game, and he was magnificent. So were his wide receivers. Time after time, they connected for long pass plays, as they used their size against the Bills' corners. Eric Decker, Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa combined for 18 receptions for 319 yards.
"I went up to him during the game and said, 'Man, you're hot right now,'" Marshall said.
For a change, Fitzpatrick was one step ahead of Ryan, finding the right matchups. He started by feeding Enunwa. When the Bills adjusted their coverage, Fitzpatrick started going to Decker and Marshall, who returned after a knee injury that, for a few minutes, appeared serious. Fitzpatrick had all the answers, and he had a lot of help from Matt Forte, who rushed for 100 yards and tied a career high with three rushing touchdowns.
"Going into the game, I just wanted to think less," Fitzpatrick said. "I think that helped me out a little. Think less, don't try to be perfect, don't try to diagnose everything he tries to do. Just play."
What made Fitzpatrick's performance truly great was his downfield passing. He completed 10 passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air, a career high, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was the third-most by any quarterback in the last 10 years. Everybody knows he doesn't have a big arm. Statistically, he was among the least efficient long-ball passers in the NFL last season. On this night, he was Namath-esque, driving the ball downfield against a couple of very good cornerbacks.
Remarkably, he was 14-for-15 on throws between 10 and 30 yards.
That long, strange contract dispute seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?
The Jets can exhale. An early-season crisis has been averted. Give them credit. They returned to this haunted house, lost their poise on three long touchdown plays (including another Darrelle Revis torching), but they refused to stay down. They showed mental toughness, rallying from a 24-20 deficit by scoring 17 unanswered points. The offense never lost its aggressiveness and the defense came up with clutch plays late in the game.
"By no means are we perfect," coach Todd Bowles said, "but from a fighting standpoint, I thought we were outstanding."
They snapped a five-game losing streak to the Bills, including two straight to their former coach. Fitzpatrick snapped what seemed to be an oh-for-forever against the diabolical defensive mastermind. he got the best of Ryan and his vaunted secondary.
"I'm happy for him because a guy like that usually doesn't get these opportunities late in his career -- a journeyman," Marshall said. "He deserves it. The game owes him. He put in the work and it's time to reap the harvest."