Amid Taylor Swift hype and Aaron Rodgers’ return, Zach Wilson played his best career game — then apologized to Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Between Taylor Swift’s high-security entrance and exit, and still-on-crutches Aaron Rodgers’ golf cart rides through the stadium tunnel, the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets played a football game.

The Chiefs, as Vegas expected, won.

Less expected: the stretch of football when highly criticized Jets quarterback Zach Wilson actually outplayed two-time Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes, who threw two interceptions on Sunday night.

Mahomes dialed up his dual threat on the Chiefs’ final drive to seal a 23-20 victory. But even he knew his team erred and narrowly avoided their second loss of the season as the Jets rallied from a 17-0 deficit to tie the game at 20 in the third quarter.

“Gotta make it interesting, huh?” Mahomes said, spinning a football, as he headed into the postgame locker room. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, in contrast, looked down and didn’t say a word.

The jovialness with which Swift hugged his mother, Donna, seemed distant.

That ability to scare the Chiefs — and the way the Jets scared them, with a turnover-forcing defense and an offense that finally grasped rhythm — gives the Jets far more reason for optimism about this season than when they entered the game. Because after two-plus years flailing and an even more acute week absorbing Jets Hall of Famer Joe Namath’s harsh public blows, Wilson played the best game of his three-year career.

Zach Wilson was in no mood to celebrate after losing to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but he gave the Jets plenty of reason to be encouraged by the night. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
Zach Wilson was in no mood to celebrate after losing to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but he gave the Jets plenty of reason to be encouraged by the night. (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

And if the Jets can ride this momentum further, their season might not be over.

“He gave us a chance to win the game,” head coach Robert Saleh said. “Brought us back. If he plays like that, we’re going to win a lot of football games.”

Zach Wilson takes blame after Chiefs-Jets: ‘I lost us that game’

As Saleh finished speaking to his players in the postgame locker room, the Jets prepared to break down the huddle. Instead, Wilson interrupted. “Trying to take the blame for everything,” wide receiver Allen Lazard described his quarterback’s message.

Because despite completing 71.8% of passes for 245 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a career-best 105.2 passer rating, Wilson made one costly and miserably timed mistake.

The Jets had just crossed midfield, down three points with 7:30 to play in the game, when Wilson fumbled the snap. Chiefs defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton recovered it, snapping the Jets’ chance to rally and ultimately what would be their last possession. (A rash of penalties left Saleh debating the fairness of the final minutes, but the Jets nonetheless did not see the ball again.)

“I lost us that game and I cannot do that,” Wilson said. “It’s on me. Critical situation. I can’t have a play like that. I cannot drop the ball. … I was making it clear to those guys that I need to be better.”

Sure, Wilson could explain what was going through his mind as he dropped the snap. He remembers the look, the protection adjustment he should have made to protect himself. He was trying to drift out of the pocket to give himself more room to throw it. He didn’t make the right call, he said.

Before long, he’d sit on the postgame bench as the final seconds of the clock ran off, his head down and his receivers flanking him. Lazard kneeled level with his quarterback, Randall Cobb patting his chest, as they reminded him: Do you realize how many big-time throws you made? How much more of your ability you showed a national audience that hadn’t seen it in recent weeks?

The Jets set season highs in offensive scoring, net yardage and third-down conversions. Consider that, against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Jets tripled their third-down success rate from a week prior (14% to 41.7%) and more than doubled their net yardage (171 to 336). Key to this improvement was the return of the Jets’ downfield passing game.

After the Jets got on the board courtesy of linebacker Bryce Huff mauling Mahomes for a safety, Wilson carried that momentum to four straight completions, including a 39-yard arc to receiver Lazard down the right sideline. The drive ultimately stalled and produced a field goal, but the offense was back rapidly after Mahomes threw an interception on the drive’s first play. Wilson would respond by lofting a back-shoulder fade to tight end C.J. Uzomah for a touchdown.

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

Wilson emerged from halftime ablaze. He found tight end Tyler Conklin for 25 yards, then Lazard for 12. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert would soon garner 23 and receiver Garrett Wilson 5. The alternating attack kept the Chiefs' defense on its toes; none more than when Zach Wilson threaded a tight-window throw to Lazard for a 10-yard touchdown … followed, the next play, by a quarterback keeper for the 2-point conversion that tied the game.

The fumble would be costly. But by contrast, Mahomes completed a mere 60% of his passes for 203 yards and one touchdown, with a 63.6 passer rating. And Wilson’s accountability, in stark contrast to his 2022 handling of a loss to the Patriots, proved valuable.

“He played his ass off,” Cobb said. “The way he played tonight, we got a chance.”

Even if Namath had made clear earlier in the week that he believed the Jets, with Wilson, didn’t.

Aaron Rodgers boosts morale as Wilson turns corner

The Jets were at their team hotel on Saturday night when Saleh announced they’d be hearing from a guest speaker.

Rodgers entered the room, first on crutches. Then, Rodgers ditched the crutches and hobbled to the front – “I thought he was about to fly, honestly,” Lazard said, comparing Rodgers to Batman — where Rodgers addressed the team in a message that three players seemed hesitant to fully reveal, prefacing their responses asking what their teammates shared. Was there a rebuke of Namath involved? Or of players’ infighting last week on the sideline?

Wilson began the reveal, describing the key takeaway as: Stick together.

"If he plays like that," Jets head coach Robert Saleh said of Zach Wilson, "we’re going to win a lot of football games.” (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
"If he plays like that," Jets head coach Robert Saleh said of Zach Wilson, "we’re going to win a lot of football games.” (Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

“We showed everybody who we were personally and how competitive we are with ‘Hard Knocks’ and all that and how close-knit we are,” center Connor McGovern told Yahoo Sports. “Just to stick together and keep moving forward.”

Cobb said the message lifted team morale.

“Being able to see him and know he’s here — that’s a big support,” Cobb told Yahoo Sports. “I think just his message, understanding the season and how it goes. It’s a long season. We gotta keep battling and keep playing.

“You never know what can happen in this league.”

At 1-3, the Jets will cling to that hope ahead of a visit to the Denver Broncos (1-3), where offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett faces the team that fired him in December less than a year into his head-coaching stint.

The Jets will have plenty to prove. Their defense held Mahomes in check. And yet they’ll need to stop the Broncos more readily than they managed on the Chiefs’ final drive that bled for more than 7 minutes. Hackett will look to call another game to his players’ strengths, several lauding his plan for them against the Chiefs. Wilson will aim to sustain the momentum and confidence that solidifies his job as starter mere days after his team signed veteran journeyman Trevor Siemian. Can Wilson again distribute the football cleanly, guide an attack that shaves yards on first and second down, and minimize mistakes?

No doubt the Hackett storyline will again texture the Jets’ next matchup, players already trolling current Broncos head coach Sean Payton in training camp after Payton lambasted Hackett for what “might have been one of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL.”

But how much more distracting could a week get than what the Jets just faced, from Namath to Rodgers to the Super Bowl champions to not only Swift attending their prime-time game but also a star-studded cast of actors joining her in an ownership suite?

This contest bred confidence.

“That’s a huge part: to give ourselves the opportunity,” Cobb said. “When we’re able to move the ball consistently, pick up third downs, stay on the field longer, get in the red zone and get points on the board — that’s winning football. We played winning football besides a few plays.

“It’s a long season. We just went toe-to-toe with the world champs and had an opportunity. We got to find a way to close games out, find a way to win them.

“But there’s a lot of good stuff we can take from this.”