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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jim Leonhard came out of nowhere, just like the New York Jets. He chased down Jason Witten and wrestled him out of bounds, saving a touchdown and giving his team a chance to pull off one of the most improbable comeback victories in franchise history.
On an unforgettable night at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets and Dallas Cowboys met on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in nearby Manhattan, Leonhard made the play of plays -- the one that symbolized the Jets' 27-24 win in the season opener.
It was all about grit and hustle, about the small guy coming up big -- and there was a lot of that for the Jets, who won for only the third time in team history after trailing by at least 14 points in the fourth quarter. The previous time was the "Monday Night Miracle" in 2000.
|Jim Leonhard knocked Jason Witten out of bounds at the 3-yard-line, saving a touchdown. Dallas fumbled three plays later.|
For this mini-miracle, Leonhard came up huge, as did Mike DeVito, Sione Pouha, Joe McKnight, Isaiah Trufant and Nick Folk. It was that kind of night. Rex Ryan, caught up in the emotion, said "it might have been the best team effort I can ever remember being part of."
On Leonhard's play, he prevented what was going to be a 67-yard touchdown reception by Witten. Leonhard sprinted some 40 yards and knocked Witten out at the Jets' 3-yard line with 10 minutes left in the game -- the 5-foot-8, 188-pound safety going up a few weight classes to take out the 6-6, 265-pound tight end.
If Leonhard hadn't shown up, the Cowboys would have taken a 14-point lead. But Leonhard didn't give up. Neither did the Jets, who wanted to win badly for New York. They were swept up in the 9/11 patriotism, which included a poignant pregame ceremony, and wanted to do right by their town.
Linebacker Bart Scott said "there was something special in the air." And guard Matt Slauson said, "We had no choice but to win." The Jets felt immense pressure, in part because Ryan declared last week that he'd never felt so much pressure leading into a game.
"You wanted to win for yourself, but you also wanted to win for the city," Leonhard said. "Rex said it was a team win. Everyone stepped up. The city stepped up 10 years ago. This was a celebration of what's gone on over the last 10 years. We kept fighting, just like they did."
Leonhard wasn't comparing a football game to a horrific terrorist attack; that would be trivializing a tragedy of unspeakable proportions. He was simply trying to capture his team's indomitable spirit.
The Jets overcame deficits of 10-0 and 24-10. They overcame two killer turnovers by Mark Sanchez. They overcame some sloppy pass defense. They overcame Rob Ryan, whose blitzing defense almost out-Rexed his twin brother.
It looked like this wasn't going to be their night. It looked like America's Team was going to run New York's Team out of its own place.
Up stepped Leonhard, the Jets' version of Mighty Mouse.
"It was one of those plays where you just keep running because you never know what might happen," he said. "We always have a saying, 'They're not in until they're in.'"
The Cowboys were in control, taking a 24-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter after a gimme touchdown off an interception by Sanchez.
"It looked bleak; there's no question about it," Rex Ryan said.
The Jets answered with a Sanchez-to-Plaxico Burress touchdown, but they let Witten get free in their secondary for the 64-yard pass play from Tony Romo. Ball at the 3. On third down, Romo was pressured and tried to scramble back to the line of scrimmage, but the ball was jarred loose by DeVito.
There was a rugby scrum for the ball. Pouha grabbed it and threw his 330-pound body over the pigskin, wrestling it away from Cowboys rookie tackle Tyron Smith.
"The ref said, 'Where's the ball?'" Pouha said. "My stomach was eating it."
It was a game-saver.
"If we get points there," Witten said, "the game is probably a different story."
Sanchez, matching Romo for carelessness, fumbled it back to the Cowboys on the Jets' ensuing possession. But the defense held, forcing a Dallas punt. One more time, the Jets, a team known for their big names, received a clutch play from the bottom of the roster.
Third-string tailback McKnight, trying to do something -- anything -- to stay in good graces, came free up the middle and made a one-handed, diving block on Mat McBriar's punt. Trufant scooped it up and ran 18 yards for a game-tying touchdown with five minutes left.
Now you're thinking "Who is Isaiah Trufant?" He was the 46th man on the 46-man roster, signed Saturday from the practice squad. Two weeks ago, he was cut by the Philadelphia Eagles, flew home to Seattle, landed and returned immediately on a cross-country flight when he learned the Jets had acquired him.
"It's been somewhat of a roller-coaster ride," Trufant said.
The teams exchanged punts, but the game turned when Romo made a bad decision. He challenged Darrelle Revis and threw a Pop Warner pass to Dez Bryant, resulting in the interception that set up Folk's 50-yard field goal. It probably was one of the sweetest moments of Folk's career, considering that he was fired by the Cowboys in 2009.
"We kind of emulate what this city's all about: sticking together, being resilient and persevering through everything that was going on," Burress said.
It wasn't artistic, but it was some show.