ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.
Ryan Fitzpatrick had what may have been his best game in a Jets uniform, and maybe one of his best games, period. There were gaudy statistics in a 37-31 win over the Bills — 374 passing yards and a 116.5 rating. There was the satisfaction of finally beating Rex Ryan after the Bills’ coach had won eight of his previous nine meetings against the quarterback. And there was a measure of revenge after his epic screw-ups in last year’s regular-season finale here.
But what Fitzpatrick liked best about what happened Thursday night was the way his team and his offense performed after it seemed another collapse was about to happen.
Fitzpatrick looked sensational early on in building a 20-7 lead in the second quarter, and the Jets looked as if they’d easily handle the Bills and get their first win of the season after Sunday’s one-point loss to the Bengals. But then came a 71-yard touchdown throw from Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor on a botched coverage by the Jets. And then rookie Jalin Marshall fumbled at his own 36 and saw the ball returned for a touchdown.
Suddenly, the lead had evaporated and created visions of another nightmare ending.
But not long after the Jets had lost the lead, Fitzpatrick brought his team out for a drive that started at the 16. He noticed the body language of his teammates and felt good about what might happen. “There wasn’t a hanging head. There was confidence in the huddle,” he said. “There was a great feeling. The guys were up.”
Fitzpatrick then led a 12-play, 84-yard drive with a series of completions to Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Quincy Enunwa and Jalin Marshall, setting up a 3-yard TD run up the middle by Matt Forte. The Jets had regained the lead, but more than that, they had gone a long way toward establishing an identity that Fitzpatrick believes can carry them a long way.
“The biggest part for me, and the part I get excited about, is going into halftime with the lead, coming out, they put 14 points on the board right away,” he said. “We went out and scored points like we’re supposed to score points. So I thought that was a great sign for our team, and even Jalin Marshall, recovering from losing the ball, he recovered and made some great plays in the second half.”
Fitzpatrick then helped put the game away with scores on his next two drives — a field goal by Nick Folk and another touchdown drive capped by Forte for his third score of the night. The Jets went up 37-24, and Buffalo got only as close as 37-31 after a late touchdown.
After hearing so much about what he couldn’t do against Ryan’s defense, Fitzpatrick put together a brilliant showing in a stadium that means so much to him. He’d once been the Bills’ starter and played four seasons here, growing attached to the community and hoping to remain here for a long time. But his time eventually ran out, and he has made the most of his latest — and perhaps final — chance to be a starter.
“I think it means a little more than a regular game just because this was my life for four years, being here, not necessarily because it was against Rex but because it was here,” he said. “This place is special for me to play in, so maybe it means a little more in that regard. But I’m more excited about our team and the way we responded in the second half.”
Said Decker, “To accomplish what we want to accomplish this year, and that’s to be a championship team, you have to do that in these situations. It’s a showcase of the leadership. To be in a situation like that and to overcome it, I think you gain confidence and you understand that we do have the ability, and that’s the championship mind.”
Fitzpatrick was the prime mover this time, and his near-perfect game was at the heart of a huge early-season win. It also was a reflection of the quarterback’s belief in his ability even if skeptics remain, especially those who have derided his ability to throw downfield, as he did so often against the Bills.
“I have more confidence in myself than anybody else on this Earth,” Fitzpatrick said. “I know I can make all those throws. When you guys say that, it doesn’t really affect me all that much. I don’t know. It gives you guys something to write about for a week.”
Not much else to write this week except how good he was — maybe the best he has looked in a Jets uniform.