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Mark Sanchez’s three-touchdown game overshadowed Tim Tebow’s New York debut as the Jets beat the Buffalo Bills 48-28 in the National Football League team’s season opener.
Tebow, the Jets’ backup quarterback, lined up as a tight end on the team’s first offensive play, a prelude to a game in which he attempted no passes, ran five times for 11 yards and operated primarily in the wildcat formation.
Sanchez completed 19 of 27 passes yesterday for 266 yards, including a career-high 184 in the first half as the Jets opened a 27-7 lead at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Coach Rex Ryan said the offensive line gave Sanchez great protection and that only a first-series interception on a shovel pass marred the starting quarterback’s day.
“We wish he had that one back, because he had one heck of a day,” Ryan said. “It was a tremendous day for Mark.”
It was a record-setting start to the season for the Jets, who broke the franchise-record of 41 points for an opening game as their defense intercepted Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick three times, returning one for a touchdown, and Jeremy Kerley returned a Buffalo punt for another score.
Sanchez bounced back after his early interception as Darrelle Revis intercepted a throw by Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson. The turnover set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Kerley. Kyle Wilson then intercepted Fitzpatrick’s throw to David Nelson, resulting in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Stephen Hill, one of the rookie’s two touchdown catches.
After the Jets’ defense forced a Bills punt on the next series, Kerley returned it 68 yards for a touchdown, the second- longest punt return score in team history. It was the first time a Jets player had a touchdown catch and a punt return touchdown in the same game. Antonio Cromartie returned a third Fitzpatrick interception for a touchdown to start the second half and the game was never close again.
Sanchez joined Ryan in crediting the offensive line for holding off Buffalo’s pass rush, along with his receivers and the defense.
“That’s just a great day of execution,” he told reporters. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I’m proud of our effort.”
Bills’ defensive end Mario Williams, who joined Buffalo as a free agent from Houston during the offseason, said Sanchez didn’t waste time in the pocket. The Bills were unable to sack Sanchez.
“He was getting back and getting the ball out,” said Williams, who was the first overall draft pick in 2006. “He had good timing with his receivers. Hats off to him, he had a good performance.”
Sanchez’s three-touchdown game came after an offseason spent competing for attention with his backup. The Jets acquired Tebow in a March trade with Denver, a day after Peyton Manning joined the Broncos, ending a two-week frenzy by several teams to sign the four-time NFL most valuable player. Sanchez signed a five-year, $58 million contract extension in March with more than $20 million guaranteed in the first two years, according to the New York Post.
The Broncos, 1-4 last season before Tebow became the starter, had reached the playoffs at 8-8 and won their first postseason game in six years on an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tebow to Demaryius Thomas.
Tebow’s late-game heroics helped him increase an already large fan base that followed him from his days at the University of Florida, where he won two national titles and a Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player in 2007. He entered the NFL two seasons ago as the 25th overall draft pick.
Tebow was named America’s favorite pro athlete in an ESPN poll this year and his jersey was the second-best seller from April 2011 to March behind Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It was the fifth-most popular jersey the previous year, in which Tebow started three games.
Ryan said after the trade that Tebow would operate the Jets’ wildcat package, a formation that uses run-or-pass options to try to confuse defenses.
Tebow lined up as a tight end on the game’s first play, when Sanchez threw incomplete to Hill. Tebow handed the ball off to Joe McKnight for a 3-yard gain three plays later and ran the wildcat several times throughout the contest. He also recovered an onside kick attempt in the fourth quarter, which he said was his first since his freshman year at Florida.
Ryan said the team’s use of the wildcat formation in this game was mostly diversionary, forcing the Bills to practice defending it instead of concentrating on other things.
“They did a nice job about the wildcat, but it’s something they had to prepare for,” Ryan said. “As much time as that team spent on the wildcat, maybe it took away from something else.”
Tebow said he felt comfortable while in the game and looked forward to playing more and better as the season progressed.
“I feel like I was able to go in there and do some good things,” he told reporters in the locker room. “I know it’s something they probably had to plan for.”
Bills coach Chan Gailey said the Jets’ use of Tebow wasn’t a surprise because the team spent time preparing for it.
“We had seen it all and I thought we contained that package pretty well,” he said.
Sanchez called Tebow “an explosive guy,” and said fans will see his role on offense increase as the season continues.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We’ve barely seen anything yet.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Kuriloff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com