Greg McElroy of the Jets in action against the Arizona...

Greg McElroy of the Jets in action against the Arizona Cardinals at MetLife Stadium. (Dec. 2, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Rex Ryan finally realized he had no choice. The man who had spent months vehemently defending Mark Sanchez was forced to make the one decision he had been dreading all season.

"I felt like we needed to make a change," Ryan said.

With 4:48 left in the third quarter, he benched Sanchez, and with that, the Greg McElroy Era began in blistering fashion. His 1-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Cumberland on the first play of the fourth quarter was the difference Sunday in a 7-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

Though the Jets (5-7) aren't as bad off as the Cardinals (losers of eight straight after a 4-0 start), Ryan's team has struggled in recent weeks. Even as the losses piled up, he never turned to Tim Tebow. But with the No. 2 quarterback inactive because of two fractured ribs and the game on the line against a bad opponent, Ryan went to McElroy.

And in his NFL debut, McElroy did what Sanchez couldn't: deliver a win. The second-year quarterback completed 5 of 7 passes for 29 yards (118.5 passer rating) and got the Jets moving, leading a 69-yard scoring drive.

Afterward, Sanchez was stoic as he stood behind the lectern, fielding questions about his first benching as a pro. He said all the right things -- "I'm glad we won. That's all we needed" -- but his glazed eyes revealed the depth of his frustration.

"From the get-go, obviously, the first play, it just wasn't my day," said Sanchez, who threw three interceptions in the first 19:07. Two were by former Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, one on the Jets' first snap. Sanchez completed 10 of 21 passes for 97 yards and was sacked three times.

Asked if he expects to start Sunday in Jacksonville -- Tebow's hometown -- Sanchez said: "I have no idea. I'll go prepare my butt off, be ready to play, and whatever Rex decides to do, we'll go with that."

Ryan stood with Sanchez for several minutes in the locker room, offering words of encouragement as he held his arm around the quarterback.

"When you've been around this game long enough, you get that feeling that 'I've seen enough and it's time to make that change,' " Ryan said. "Again, I have confidence in Mark. I have confidence in Greg. I have confidence in Tim.

"Mark is a great competitor. He understood that it was my call. He's a man. Nobody wants to leave the game, but I just felt like it was right for our team."

Despite his professed confidence in Sanchez, Ryan wouldn't say the face of the franchise will start against the Jaguars. "I'll let you guys know who's going to be the quarterback when I'm ready," he said.

Asked if he still thinks Sanchez gives the Jets the best chance to win, Ryan remained evasive. "We'll address that going forward," he said. "But right now, I'm just happy with the win."

Now the Jets have three quarterbacks who are unsure of their status for next week. McElroy, the man of the hour, said he has "no expectations at this point" and planned to just "enjoy this one for 24 hours."

"You never know," added McElroy, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve because of a thumb injury. "This is a crazy game. Even if you're the [No.] 1, 2 or 3, you're always a couple of plays away at the most [from playing]."

The calls for Tebow had followed Sanchez for months. But this time, the modest MetLife Stadium crowd erupted in "Mc-El-Roy!" chants early.

A 48-yard field goal by former Jet Jay Feely put Arizona up 3-0 as the first half ended. But the sheer presence of McElroy -- who didn't get a single first-team rep last week in practice -- injected life into a listless stadium.

As McElroy leaped into the arms of tight end Konrad Reuland during the touchdown celebration, Sanchez stood wearing a Jets baseball cap on the sideline, jotting down plays on the same clipboard the third-stringer had carried all season.

Ryan, who always has been an ardent Sanchez supporter, said his starter will "bounce back and be ready to roll."

When Sanchez was asked if he'll be disappointed if he doesn't start Sunday, he said: "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

More Jets