For four quarters Sunday, for one game, for one season opener, the New York Jets showed they were equal to the National Football League's best.
And they might have escaped from San Francisco with a tie or victory. But in a game of shifting fortunes, high drama and quirky plays, the 49ers defeated the Jets in sudden-death overtime, 36-30.The winning score was beautiful, if you are a 49ers fan: a 96-yard touchdown run by Garrison Hearst, who stiff-armed the rookie safety Kevin Williams at the San Francisco 20 and who eluded clutches and grabs in a 17-second run to the wind-swept end zone, right where home plate is. The time of sudden-death was 4 minutes 8 seconds.
"I can't be more disappointed than I am right now," said Jets coach Bill Parcells.
And yet, the way Parcells looks at football, it came down to a mistake - "To just being able to concentrate long enough to win one of these."
The crushing run was a fullback trap.
"It was to my side," said defensive lineman Rick Lyle. "He came and trapped me." Hearst's dash was the longest run in team history.
"We played a great game," Lyle said, "and it came down to one play."
Of course, there were many plays in the game that the Jets tied as time expired on John Hall's 31-yard field goal. The drive to tie the game featured Glenn Foley connecting on third- and fourth-down passes.
Over all, the Jets' offense seemed to have come of age against a team they could not run effectively against. Curtis Martin generated only 58 yards on 22 carries in his Jets debut. Foley tossed for three touchdowns, including a pair to Keyshawn Johnson. Johnson is such a fan of Jerry Rice's that his original contract called for extra money if he was able to amass many of the statistics that Rice has.
Foley - 30 of 58 for 416 yards, three touchdowns and one interception - is still looking for his first complete-game victory. This was his sixth career start.
Steve Young was 26 of 46 for 363 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
It was not Martin and his outstanding running ability that made a difference in the first half for the Jets, as they unveiled an overhauled starting lineup. Instead, it was the passing game.
Foley tossed a pair of first-half touchdowns - a 41-yarder to Johnson, who split the defense, and a 6-yard lob to Wayne Chrebet - as the Jets took a 17-14 lead.
But it was far from perfect. The offensive line committed three of the Jets' four penalties in the opening half. And Hall's kickoffs continued to be a problem.
Meanwhile, Young did what he usually does. He froze the defense as he spotted players on exquisite timing routes. It was Young's third touchdown pass of the game, late in the fourth quarter that seemed to put the Jets away. His 31-yard pass to J.J. Stokes, who leaped in front of Williams, gave the 49ers a 30-27 lead. The Jets, though, tied it on Hall's field goal.
The Jets scored first on a Hall field goal as they got the ball on a turnover. It was the first time the Jets had intercepted Young in his third appearance against them.
Williams grabbed the ball as it bounced off Irv Smith's fingers. Williams, the only rookie starter on defense, returned the ball 34 yards to the 49ers' 27. Hall soon connected on a 24-yard field goal.
Of course, the crowd was watching Rice, who is coming back from two serious knee injuries last season, on every play.
Rice snared six passes for 86 yards. But Johnson did better, with nine catches for 126 yards.