A half century of Jets dread and gloom was supposed to end Monday night against the Buffalo Bills amid the ceremonious debut of Aaron Rodgers, one of the most prolific passers of his generation. Instead, the Jets’ defense, young receivers and a castaway quarterback, with help from four turnovers from the Bills’ Josh Allen, fueled a 22-16 comeback, overtime win.
Capping a scoring rally that began with a game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter, the Jets rookie receiver Xavier Gipson returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in overtime to snatch back a victory against a division rival that seemed unlikely once Rodgers was hurt.
On the Jets’ third official offensive play of the game, left tackle Duane Brown missed a block against Bills linebacker Leonard Floyd. Rodgers tried to escape, but Floyd sacked Rodgers, rolling the quarterback’s legs as they both went to the ground. Rodgers stood up, then sat back down before walking to the sideline with help from Jets medical staff.
Rodgers was transported to the locker room on a cart and did not return after officially being ruled out with an ankle injury.
Jets Coach Robert Saleh said after the game that the team was concerned that Rodgers had injured an Achilles’ tendon. “M.R.I. is probably going to confirm what we think is already going to happen, so prayers tonight, but it’s not good,” he said.
The cornerback D.J. Reed said the injury rattled the defense and that it was tough to focus immediately afterward. “You can’t dwell on it because you know we have a game to play, but at the same time you don’t want your quarterback to be down,” Reed said.
The singer Justin Timberlake and the rapper Sexyy Red were among the celebrities who studded the sideline, drawn by the prospect of Rodgers’s Jets era. The fanfare inside MetLife Stadium quickly dulled as Zach Wilson came on in relief and the Jets reverted to last season’s philosophy — running the ball and playing stout defense.
The defense held the Bills to a field goal on the drive that followed Rodgers’s injury, and safety Jordan Whitehead intercepted an Allen pass on the Bills’ next series for the first of his three picks on the night.
The second-year running back Breece Hall immediately responded, jolting for an 83-yard run to set up a short Greg Zuerlein field goal to tie the game at 3-3 with 10 minutes 35 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Hall, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament seven games into a promising 2022 season, had 127 yards on 10 carries in his return to play.
The Bills retaliated with a 75-yard touchdown drive, completed by a 5-yard toss from Allen to Stefon Diggs.
After Wilson pitched an interception of his own on a short pass up the middle intended for Randall Cobb, Buffalo kicked a field goal to bring the score to 13-3 at halftime.
Wilson said he briefly talked to Rodgers at halftime and told him that he loved him. After two seasons as the Jets starter, Wilson embraced his role as Rodgers’s understudy during training camp and bonding with the four-time league M.V.P.
Suddenly thrust back into the quarterback job, Wilson was hounded all evening by a Bills pass rush that dominated the Jets’ offensive line, a weakness of last season that carried into the Rodgers era. He was sacked twice and managed 140 yards on 14 of 21 passing, but he was able to begin the second half with a 12-play, 50-yard field goal drive to narrow the score to 13-6.
“I just got to keep getting better,” Wilson said in a postgame news conference. He added: “I just have to aggressively rely on everything I’ve done in the preseason and just do my best to keep improving as a player.”
On the Bills’ next possession, Allen attempted to find Diggs in the end zone again, throwing a deep pass on second-and-13 from the Jets’ 41-yard line into double coverage. With defensive tackle Quinnen Williams bearing down on Allen as he threw, Whitehead caught his second interception, this time for a touchback. The Jets were unable to score off the turnover, going three-and-out.
The reality of a Rodgers-less offense all but silenced the crowd as the clocked ticked toward what seemed to be a gloomy ending. The unit sputtered as it had last season, choked by protection for Wilson that couldn’t hold up as he searched for high-percentage, risk-averse passing options.
With 9:43 remaining in the game, Whitehead snatched another pass from Allen — a toss aimed at Gabe Davis — gifting the Jets the ball at their own 43-yard line. On the ensuing drive, the Jets’ middling offense came up with the crucial plays it had seemed incapable of producing in the three previous quarters.
Wilson found receiver Allen Lazard with a short toss on a third-and-5 play that Lazard legged out for a 24-yard gain. The Jets pounded the ball forward on running plays, including a Wilson scamper in the red zone, as Buffalo’s defense tightened. On second-and-goal, he targeted receiver Garrett Wilson, who was matched up with Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White one on one. White prevented Garrett Wilson from getting to the back corner of the end zone, where the pass was headed, but Wilson reached across White, batted the ball back to himself with his right hand, and collected it after a short juggle to tie the score at 13.
Wilson said coaches called for a run play with a passing option and that he decided to throw when he saw Wilson in single coverage.
“I just looked out there and saw G and was like, ‘I’m throwing this one up,’” Zach Wilson said.
Facing Williams’s pass rush again, Allen fumbled on the Bills’ first play from scrimmage on the next series, and the Jets recovered the ball at Buffalo’s 27-yard line with just under five minutes left in regulation, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
It was the last turnover of a deplorable night from Allen, who was sacked five times and hurried on several passes. He finished with 236 yards passing on a 29-of-41 performance.
“It’s not like I’m, going out there and trying to throw interceptions,” Allen said in a postgame news conference. He finished tied for second in the league in interceptions last season (14). “We’ll find out on tape and try to correct and got to correct it fast.”
The Jets managed a clock-eating field goal drive punctuated with Zuerlein’s 30-yard conversion to take a 16-13 lead with 1:48 left.
Allen responded with a drive in which he connected with Diggs three times for 40 yards on a 43-yard march to get into field goal range. With two seconds remaining, the Bills’ Tyler Bass connected on a 50-yard kick that crashed into the left upright but bounced through to force overtime.
The Bills won possession in the coin toss, leaving the Jets’ defense, the strength of the team in the 2022 season and on Monday night, to come up with yet another crucial stand. A false start penalty on Bills offensive tackle Spencer Brown backed Buffalo up to its own 20-yard line and a pass rush led by Williams held the Bills to just 3 yards from there.
Allen had to take his final snap from the shotgun before the Bills were forced to punt to Gipson, an undrafted rookie out of Stephen F. Austin. He got stellar blocking from teammates as he strode 65 yards to the end zone, where he was surrounded by Jets coaches and players who rushed in from the sidelines as time expired.
Rodgers was nowhere in sight.