ORCHARD PARK — It was not the play that won the game for the Jets.
It was the play that tied it.
But it might as well have been the play that delivered the Jets their feel-good 27-23 victory over the Bills on Sunday at New Era Stadium, a win that put a merciful end to a season-sabotaging six-game losing streak.
Because the play represented a liberation of sorts for Sam Darnold, the Jets rookie quarterback who’d missed the previous three games with a sprained right foot.
The play was a third-and-5 from the Buffalo 7-yard line early in the fourth quarter with the Jets trailing 20-13 and with touchdowns like precious drops of drinking water in the desert for them (they’d scored three in the previous five games).
Darnold — rolling right at first, was in distress, chased and nearly taken down by a shoestring tackle attempt by Bills veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams — channeled his inner Steve Young and he reversed field, rolling left to extend the play.
Extend the play.
This, when Darnold was coming out of USC and chosen by the Jets as the No. 3-overall pick in the draft, was his calling card, his signature. Yet, with the play-calling of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates far too cautious this season, it’s a strength that has been too often stifled.
So there it was Sunday, on that third-and-5 play from the Buffalo 7, and it was beautiful.
Darnold spotted receiver Robby Anderson free in the end zone and delivered the ball to him to tie the game at 20-20 with 12:06 remaining.
The TV commentators said Darnold had run about 50 yards on that play before he threw the ball.
“Wow,’’ receiver Quincy Enunwa said when informed of that fact. “That’s what he does, man. He’s good outside the pocket. We’ve got to keep finding more ways to get him doing that. When he was coming out of the draft, I think that was one of the best things he did in college.’’
A short time earlier, in the third quarter, Darnold rolled right to get away from the Buffalo pass rush and tried — Aaron Rodgers style — to direct tight end Chris Herndon to a place where he could deliver the ball for a big play.
But he delivered it into the surprised, waiting arms of Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who picked the ball off at the Buffalo 14-yard line, squelching what would at least have been a Jason Myers field goal.
The best thing about what we saw from Darnold on Sunday was that he didn’t let that rookie mistake affect him for the rest of the game. Add to that the fact he was sent to the locker room for X-rays after the opening series when it appeared he’d re-injured his right foot.
The X-rays were negative and Darnold returned to complete 16-of-24 for 170 yards to lead the Jets to victory.
“What we already know about Sam is he doesn’t let those type of things [INTs] faze him,’’ Enunwa said. “He brushes it off and goes on to the next play. That’s why we love him as our quarterback.’’
As it turned out, the best was yet to come for Darnold on this day.
With the Bills having taken a 23-20 lead, Darnold and the Jets got the ball with 2:25 remaining in the game with a chance to tie or win it and he delivered. Nine plays, 61 yards and 1:14 later, Darnold had engineered the game-winning drive.
“He put a drive together when it counted,’’ cornerback Buster Skrine said.
“What you saw today is he’s a natural-born leader,’’ linebacker Brandon Copeland said. “He just took over.’’
The key play was Darnold, recognizing man coverage on Anderson, connecting with him for 37 yards down the right sideline to give the Jets a first-and-goal from the Buffalo 5, setting up the winning touchdown.
The entire day — even though it was just one day in the midst of a miserable playoff-less season — was a positive peek into the Jets future.
“He played tough and gritty … he was smiling and having fun … he’s starting to be himself,’’ Jets coach Todd Bowles said.
“From the [game-winning] drive to leaving the game and coming back … we’ve said it all season: He has the right makeup,’’ veteran backup quarterback and Darnold mentor Josh McCown said. “Those are the things that you look for and you want in a quarterback that’s going to lead your franchise for a long time. Today was a great glimpse into that.’’
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