ATLANTA — Even in hostile territory in the deafening Georgia Dome, Geno Smith was everything the Jets needed him to be on the biggest stage he ever faced — Monday Night Football.
The rookie quarterback led the Jets downfield, close enough for Nick Folk to nail a 43-yard field goal as time expired in a 30-28 win over the Falcons.
“I’m glad we won this way,” Rex Ryan said, “because it took every one of us. We played fearless. Even our kicker is fearless.”
After Levine Toilolo’s 3-yard touchdown catch put the Falcons up 28-27 with 1:54 to go, the Jets (3-2) had one final chance to shock the NFL and send the Falcons plummeting to 1-4.
Starting from his 20-yard line, Smith threw three quick completions to Stephen Hill (12 and 9 yards) and Jeremy Kerley (13 yards) before scampering 8 yards out of bounds. On third-and-3 at the Falcons’ 31, Bilal Powell ran for 6 yards, putting the ball well within Folk’s range.
The efficient Smith completed 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and best of all, had the first turnover-free game of his NFL career. He threw eight interceptions in the first four games.
“Everyone has complete confidence in me,” Smith said. “That’s great to have guys on your side with the way that I played in the last four weeks. They told me to go out there and just let it rip. Play with no conscience.”
The Falcons’ Matt Ryan completed 36 of 45 for 319 yards and two TDs.
Despite all the criticism the Jets withstood about their depleted receiving corps and lack of talent, they gut-punched the Falcons for much of the first half. But as the fourth quarter ticked away, the Jets found themselves trailing by a point.
The Falcons, 13-3 last year, should have been more desperate than the Jets, and more prepared to change the course of their season. But even though they hung around until the very end, Smith proved to be the better quarterback on this night.
The flashes of brilliance he had shown sporadically finally were on full display for all the NFL to see. Even without top receiver Santonio Holmes, Smith kept the Jets’ offense a step ahead of the Falcons for the entire game. Save for some second-half moments, he remained poised in the pocket and confident as ever.
Kerley broke off a 24-yard punt return and was horse-collared by punter Matt Bosher to end the third quarter. The Jets quickly padded their lead to 27-14, thanks to a 19-yard run by Chris Ivory and a 1-yard, toe-tap touchdown catch by tight end Kellen Winslow.
Ryan aired it out to Julio Jones with Antonio Cromartie trailing a bit in coverage. But the cornerback somehow was able to break up the pass as Jones came down with the ball in the end zone.
The Falcons were undeterred. Three plays later, Jacquizz Rodgers broke multiple tackles on his way to a 19-yard score to pull to within 27-21.
The game couldn’t have started better for the Jets, who stopped the Falcons on their opening drive and blocked the subsequent punt. Smith led a drive to the 4, but the Jets — who seemed determined to go for it on fourth-and-1 — were flagged for delay of game (the penalty was declined). Folk nailed a 22-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
But a lucky bounce, another bad challenge by Rex Ryan and poor goal-line defense quickly led to a 7-3 Falcons lead on a 4-yard touchdown by Jason Snelling, courtesy of a shovel pass.
But Smith was unfazed. And for the first time since a 2008 game against the Patriots, the Jets scored on their first three drives (17 points). Fueled by big runs from recently activated Mike Goodson, the Jets capped a 67-yard drive with a beautifully thrown 20-yard TD from Smith to tight end Jeff Cumberland.
But the best, from Smith, was yet to come. Three plays. One minute and 37 seconds.
Smith hit Cumberland for a 47-yard, second-down catch before connecting on a 16-yard touchdown to Kerley. The slot receiver, who started in place of Holmes, caught the ball at the 12, broke a tackle by cornerback Robert McClain and lunged toward the end zone with the ball extended.
Sixty-six yards, and the Jets led 17-7.
The Falcons had multiple chances to regain the momentum late in the first half, but they failed to capitalize.