EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Plaxico Burress reached up for the floating football with his right arm, spun and somehow came down with it for a first down.
It was an eye-popping fourth-quarter grab that helped the New York Jets come back and beat the Buffalo Bills 28-24 on Sunday. It also might have saved their season.
"I don't know if words could do it any justice," quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "It was a big-time catch in a crucial situation."
No doubt about it. With several Jets saying they needed to win each of their last six games to reach the postseason, New York got the first one — barely. Five more to go.
"We'll take it," coach Rex Ryan said. "Wow."
Sanchez threw a career-high four touchdown passes, including the winning 16-yard score to Santonio Holmes with just over a minute remaining, as New York kept pace in the AFC playoff race.
"He's at his best," Ryan said of his quarterback, "in big moments."
This was certainly one of them.
Things appeared bleak with New York (6-5) trailing 24-21 after Dave Rayner's 53-yard field goal and facing a third-and-11 from the Bills' 36. But Sanchez connected with Burress — made fun of earlier in the game when the Bills' Stevie Johnson pantomimed shooting himself in the leg during a TD celebration — for a one-handed 18-yard grab over Justin Rogers that had everyone talking after the game.
"It was crazy," Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said of the catch. "He's 6-foot-5 and he's got those 'Go-Go-Gadget' arms. It was probably one of the best catches I've seen in a while."
Added Bills coach Chan Gailey: "It was an unbelievable catch."
On the next play, Sanchez quickly ran a quarterback sneak — just to make sure there was no challenge, even though replays showed Burress had a clean catch. Then, Sanchez rolled out to his right to buy some time and found Holmes alone in the right corner of the end zone to give the Jets the lead with 1:01 left.
"That's who he is, he's a stud — Sanchize," Ryan said. "The first half wasn't the best half, but we knew if we just hung in there ... we have complete faith in Mark. He's done it before."
But the Jets then had to overcome a valiant comeback try by the Bills (5-6), who have lost four straight. With Buffalo driving for a winning score, a wide-open Johnson dropped a pass that would have gone for a long gain. Ryan Fitzpatrick also threw behind Johnson in the end zone with 8 seconds left that might have been a touchdown.
"It's hard," Fitzpatrick said. "They scored at the end and we had a legitimate four chances to get it in there in the end zone and unfortunately we were unable to make the plays. It hurts real bad."
Johnson had one of the Bills' touchdown catches late in the first half, and there was plenty of talk about that one, too.
The Bills wide receiver celebrated his catch by pretending to shoot himself in the thigh — clearly poking fun at Burress, who served 20 months in prison for shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub in 2008 while he was with the Giants. Johnson then mocked the "flight" celebration the Jets often use after scoring and fell to the ground, getting flagged 15 yards for excessive celebration on the play that gave Buffalo a 14-7 lead.
"I was just having fun and part of having fun ended up being a penalty and a touchdown for the Jets," Johnson said. "It was a stupid decision by myself."
New York was already going to have good field position, but Rayner flubbed a squib kick that hit off the Jets' Emanuel Cook, who recovered the ball at Buffalo's 36.
The Jets moved to the 14 when Buffalo's Marcell Dareus was hit with a 15-yard penalty for using his helmet to make contact with Sanchez. Three plays later, Burress caught a 14-yard touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to tie it at 14 with 1:03 left in the half. Burress simply bowed to the crowd and ran to the stands and handed the ball to his son Elijah, as he always does after scoring receptions.
"I've seen worse, and I've heard worse," Burress said of Johnson's antics. "So, it doesn't bother me at all. The result I'm looking at is we won the football game, and he turned around and dropped three wide-open balls to lose it for his team."
Sanchez wasn't great in this one, going 17 of 35 for 180 yards and an interception, but came through with his eighth fourth-quarter comeback victory in two-plus seasons. He also threw two touchdown passes to Dustin Keller as the Jets rebounded from a deflating loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos 10 days earlier.
Fitzpatrick was 26 of 39 for 264 yards and three touchdowns, but couldn't pull out one more in the end as Buffalo played without several injured starters, including Fred Jackson and George Wilson.
"Defensively, the one thing we can say is we finished," Ryan said.Comment on this story
The Jets' offense started the third quarter with a nice drive capped by Keller's second touchdown catch of the game that gave New York a 21-14 lead with 3:50 remaining in the period.
Buffalo tied it less than 2 minutes later on Brad Smith's terrific touchdown catch against his former team. Moments after the Bills recovered a muffed punt return by Antonio Cromartie, the Jets cornerback was in the middle of another big play. Smith appeared to get a hand on Fitzpatrick's long pass, tapped the ball up, grabbed it out of the air as Cromartie fell and took off into the end zone for a career-best 36-yard touchdown.
"That was a huge victory for us," Ryan said. "Now we have two wins over Buffalo, a team that we could see at the end right there with us in the playoff run."
Notes: David Nelson had the Bills' other touchdown, an 8-yard catch that gave Buffalo a 7-0 lead late in the opening quarter. ... Jets DE Mike DeVito left in the third quarter with a right knee injury. Ryan had no update on the severity. ... Former Bills first-rounder Aaron Maybin had two of the Jets' three sacks. ... Fitzpatrick became the fifth QB in team history with 50 TD passes, joining Jim Kelly, Joe Ferguson, Jack Kemp and Drew Bledsoe.