In his previous engagement at MetLife Stadium, Peyton Manning began Super Bowl XLVIII by chasing a snap over his head. But his opening play against the Jets Sunday was much better -- a pass to free-running Demaryius Thomas for 54 yards.
Jets coach Rex Ryan came in with a plan to force the Broncos to run, and that play only reinforced his commitment. For the most part, he stuck with a three- or four-man rush that invited Manning to call more running plays.
That approach didn't prevent the Jets from suffering their fifth straight loss, 31-17. But it led to a one-possession game in the fourth quarter that allowed Ryan's defense to hang on to the rope of belief as they head to New England to face the Patriots on Thursday night.
Answering only three questions after the game, angry defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson said of the losing streak: "It's not about what people say. I feel like we fought hard the whole game. We were behind a wall. I feel like we cracked that wall today, and hopefully, we can break it come Thursday night."
That defiant theme was echoed by several others on the defense, notably tackle Sheldon Richardson, who responded to a question about frustration thusly: "Do you see my face? It's frustrated, right? That's all you need to know. It's frustrating to lose. I'm not a loser, none of us are losers. Losing is frustrating. God, quit asking me the same question. Please."
Manning may have thrown three touchdown passes, completed 22 of 33 passes for 237 yards, converted 7 of 16 third downs, orchestrated a running game that gained 138 yards and helped control the ball for 33:34, but the message to the media was clear from Ryan's defense: Nobody is quitting on the coach.
"You see the heart and passion we played with today," linebacker Demario Davis said.
The Jets' defense certainly started well, pressuring Manning early and holding the Broncos to a field goal after that opening salvo. But Manning probed the Jets' defense expertly, taking everything they gave him in the running game and finishing drives of 43, 80 and 87 yards with TD passes for a 24-7 third-quarter lead.
Asked about the Jets sometimes lining up with only two defensive linemen, safety Calvin Pryor said of Manning, "We wanted him to run the ball. Make it seem like he was doing the right thing."
Pryor was the helpless victim on Manning's third TD pass, a 4-yard slant to tight end Julius Thomas that looked ridiculously easy because Manning identified the soft spot and put it . . . right . . . there. "We were up on them," Pryor said. "We had help inside, but Peyton was being Peyton. He made a good throw inside the window between two guys. That's tough."
When the Jets cut the deficit to 24-17 in the fourth quarter and then had Denver at its own 6-yard line, where the defense forced a three-and-out series, MetLife Stadium had some life again as the crowd got into it.
"That drive was huge for us," cornerback Darrin Walls said. "We got the fans back in the game, and we took a lot of emotional positives from that drive."
That stand allowed the defense to walk away feeling it had contained Manning as well as possible. But Richardson concluded, "It provided a spark in the end, but we just didn't get the job done."