Zach Wilson, Jets show signs of life in loss to Chiefs. Can they carry it forward?

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Jets coach Robert Saleh walked to the lectern on Sunday night and gripped it so hard it should’ve snapped in half. There were moments when Saleh wasn’t speaking much, but his hands were. His right fist was clenched, and he’d knock on the lectern, as if all the things he wanted to say, to scream, were just beneath the surface. He tried to remain calm.

At the end of Sunday’s game to the Kansas City Chiefs, a 23-20 loss, Saleh was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for ripping into a referee after the Jets were called for a penalty that might’ve altered the outcome of a game that was far closer than anyone could’ve expected. The Jets had picked off Patrick Mahomes for the third time, only it was called back on a questionable defensive holding penalty, against cornerback Sauce Gardner.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Saleh said.

A few plays earlier, defensive end Jermaine Johnson was held by a Chiefs offensive lineman as Mahomes scrambled for 25 yards on third-and-23, but there was no flag. When reporters approached Johnson in the locker room, he looked ready to burst, staring at the ground, rageful. He was told to shower before answering any questions, to cool off.


The Jets are mad. This was a game they could’ve won, should’ve won, against the defending Super Bowl champions. Zach Wilson outplayed Mahomes — yes, he really did. The way Wilson played, especially at the end of the first half, was good enough to inspire some hope for the rest of the season. That, maybe, Wilson could be good enough to keep the Jets afloat while they await Aaron Rodgers’ return, whether that’s this year (a pipe dream) or next. But a season is full of moments that can change its trajectory.

Robert Saleh was called for unsportsmanlike conduct late in Sunday’s game. (Elsa / Getty Images)

The Jets are 1-3 after four weeks. Any goodwill derived from Wilson’s performance against the Chiefs — and he deserves praise for it — will quickly evaporate if he can’t do it against the Broncos in Denver next week. The Jets’ season has already reached a critical juncture, and Sunday night’s loss didn’t help.

Perhaps the penalty called on Gardner — or the one not called on Johnson — would’ve changed the outcome if either had gone another way, but there were other moments, too. Like when the defense quickly put the Jets in a 17-0 deficit, a first-quarter performance full of miscommunications and missed tackles, like on Isiah Pacheco’s 48-yard touchdown run. Or when Saleh chose to kick a 52-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 toward the end of the first half, and Greg Zuerlein missed.

In the third quarter, when the Jets could’ve taken a lead, Wilson completed a 15-yard pass to C.J. Uzomah, but it was called back on a penalty for center Connor McGovern. The drive stalled out, and they punted it away. The defense forced a three-and-out, and then the Jets went three-and-out. The Chiefs scored a field goal on their next drive, and then Wilson made his biggest error of the season.

He took a snap from McGovern, couldn’t hang onto the ball and dropped it to the turf, recovered by the Chiefs, a brutal turnover at a critical juncture. That was his last play.

Wilson put the loss on himself.

“It’s on me,” Wilson said. “Critical situation, I can’t have a play like that. I cannot drop the ball. This team is sacrificing a lot. Guys are making plays. Defense was making plays. O-line was protecting. Receivers were making plays. To be driving right there, to drop a snap, I cannot do that. I lost us that game and I cannot do that.”

On the sideline, Wilson blamed himself, but his teammates wouldn’t let him. He tried again in the locker room, wide receiver Allen Lazard said, speaking to the team after Saleh spoke, with the same message.

Wilson was “just trying to take the blame for everything and that’s just the competitor in him,” Lazard said. “I was just consoling him, saying: We all made mistakes today. You weren’t the only one. Obviously, that one is highlighted more because it was later in the game, but he played amazing.”

That’s a level of accountability Wilson didn’t show last year. He showed some things as a quarterback, too, that he’d never really shown before. For three weeks, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had been calling plays that made it clear the Jets were scared about Wilson making mistakes. And so, in turn, Wilson was playing like someone who was scared to make mistakes.

This week, the plan changed. The message: Let it rip.

“They told us, we’re going into this to win this game,” McGovern said. “We’re not going in it to not lose.”

Hackett worked more play action into the script — getting Wilson out of the pocket — and it worked. He completed seven of eight passes on play action, per TruMedia, after going 8 of 15 in the first three games. He had five pass attempts that traveled more than 20 yards in the air and completed three of them. He was 1 of 6 in the first three games. His best pass was on the 10-yard touchdown to Lazard, thrown into tight coverage, where only Lazard could get it.

Wilson set a career high in completions (28) and finished with 245 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“He took some chances tonight and they paid off,” wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “He’s been wanting to make those throws but he’s been so worried about mistakes, turnovers, and he has the ability. He showed it tonight.”

Anyone who has followed the Jets for the last decade (or longer) is tired of hearing about moral victories. But just as the Jets were left for dead, they nearly upended the Chiefs. The defense started slow, but allowed only three points after the first quarter and picked off Mahomes twice. Travis Kelce, in front of Taylor Swift, didn’t make a significant impact. Hackett manufactured touches for playmakers who hadn’t been getting the ball enough previously, like Xavier Gipson and Garrett Wilson, who was targeted 14 times. The offensive line held up well.

And Wilson, finally, looked like an NFL-caliber starting quarterback. The Jets are another loss away from the season going off the rails, but for now, it’s fair to feel like this team is close — but only if Wilson can do that again.

And again.

And again.

There are 14 weeks left in the season. A moral victory in Week 4 won’t mean much if the Jets lose again in Week 5.

But if Wilson can play that well the rest of the way? Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones put it simply.

“They can be special,” he said.

(Top photo: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)

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