May 20, 2024

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Embattled New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson played the best game of his NFL career on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, but he lamented the snap that got away.

Wilson fumbled a shotgun snap at midfield with 7:24 remaining in the fourth quarter — the Jets’ final play in their 23-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Afterward, Wilson spoke briefly to the entire team in the locker room, taking responsibility for the defeat.

“To be driving right there and to drop a snap — I cannot do that,” Wilson told reporters. “I lost us that game, and I can’t do that.”

Several teammates consoled Wilson, whose faux pas occurred at a critical time — facing a three-point deficit late — against the defending Super Bowl champions. Still, his overall performance was a breakthrough that might have saved his job.

After a week of intense scrutiny, including criticism from Jets legend Joe Namath, Wilson completed a career-high 28 passes on 39 attempts for 245 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He posted a career-high 105.2 passer rating. The Jets (1-3) dropped their third straight, but Wilson’s efficiency was a spark they needed after losing Aaron Rodgers to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in Week 1.

“If he plays that way, we’re going to win a lot of football games,” coach Robert Saleh said of Wilson, whose profound struggles had created tension in the locker room in recent days, sources said.

The situation prompted Rodgers, who rejoined the team on Saturday after rehabbing for two weeks in California, to deliver an impassioned speech to the squad Saturday night, according to several players. His message: Stick together.

“It’s always exciting to see big brother,” Wilson said.

Rodgers, on crutches, watched from a private box as his protégé rallied the Jets from 17-0 deficit with touchdown passes to tight end C.J. Uzomah (1 yard) and wide receiver Allen Lazard (10 yards).

The Lazard score, followed by a nifty 2-point run from Wilson, made it 20-20 with 10:40 left in the third quarter. It culminated a flawless drive in which Wilson was 5-for-5 for 75 yards, looking nothing like the quarterback who was so ineffective in losses to the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots.

Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, conservative in recent weeks, called an aggressive game, relying on Wilson instead of the running game. Emboldened by the show of confidence, Wilson — drafted No. 2 overall in 2021 — played more decisively than in any previous start.

“I’m just really happy for him to go out and show that he does belong, that he can play in this league,” Saleh said.

Wilson completed passes to 10 different receivers. Before Sunday, he had three games in his career in which he failed to complete 10 passes in total.

“I think me and Hack are growing more trust in each other and what we’re able to do as an offense,” Wilson said.

The Jets had a chance to pull off a stunning upset. They got the ball back in a tie game and were driving to a go-ahead score midway through the fourth quarter. But on a second-and-9 from the Chiefs’ 49, Wilson dropped a simple shotgun snap, and it was recovered by defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton.

Out of the corner of his eye, Wilson saw an unblocked player on his left, ready to blitz. He said he second-guessed himself for not changing the protection. That was his first mistake, he said. Then he drifted a little, anticipating a backside rush — and just dropped the ball.

“I was making it clear to those guys that I need to be better,” he said of his teammates. “I need to be better on the little things and details. That can’t happen.”

After Saleh spoke to the team in the locker room, Wilson felt compelled to say something in front of the group. That he spoke up and showed accountability was significant. A year ago, he sparked a firestorm by refusing in a postgame news conference to accept any blame after a horrible performance in a loss to the Patriots.

“Zach is a huge competitor, and after the game, he spoke to the team, just trying to take the blame for everything,” Lazard said. “That’s just the competitor in him and the leader he is. I was just consoling him, saying, ‘Hey, we all made mistakes today. You weren’t the only one.'”

The Jets almost had another chance to pull out a victory, but an apparent interception by Michael Carter II was nullified by defensive holding on cornerback Sauce Gardner. Saleh argued and was later penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. The coach declined to comment.

Gardner took issue with the call, which allowed the Chiefs (3-1) to run out the clock.

“Me, personally, that’s like basketball one-on-one, and you go up to lay the ball up then wait to see if you miss and then say ‘foul,'” Gardner said. “I can’t believe that. That was just crazy.”

“It’s real frustrating, I’m not going to lie,” he continued. “He didn’t throw the flag until MC picked the ball off. That’s not how you do things. I haven’t been in the league a long time, but that’s not how you do things. I didn’t hold him at the end. I didn’t hold him to begin with.”

Without the penalty, the Jets would’ve had the ball at their 32 with 4:19 left. Saleh said he was confident Wilson would’ve led them to a score.

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