The New York Jets 2011
Credit: Illustration by Roberto Parada

In Denver, on the bus to the stadium, there was a faint odor of anxiety. Well before we reached it, the stadium was visible in the distance, a big shimmering new-world building. Out on the field before the game, Tebow soared errant practice throws so far and high, I kept noticing the downtown skyline. Up in the coaching booth, Pettine sat silent with his multitude of pens and markers, then he fist-knocked with the other coaches before kickoff. Early on, Pettine kept careful track of the positioning of the edges and his deep safety. "I can't stress it enough, edge guys, don't chase until you see the QB give up the ball," he said into his microphone.

The game involved much punting. The Jets defense often was left to work from poor field position; five Broncos possessions started from the Jets side of the 50. On these possessions, the Jets held Denver to only three points. The Denver backs were having no success, Tebow wasn't running much, and Cro had been right: The quarterback's big windup brought to mind a gantry crane boom as he swiveled before he threw. Pettine was on his game. "Watch the screen," he'd call, and it would be a bubble screen. Schotty and Sanchez were having less success. "Unbelievable," said Pettine after every drive-killing offensive penalty or run for a loss. The offensive coaches seated to Pettine's left were very quiet. When Sanchez imprudently burned a time-out, one of them muttered, "Schotty might kill him." The Jets got the defensive formation they wanted for a 38 Special – reborn! – direct snap to running back Joe McKnight, but the ball rocketed way over his head. "Un-fucking-believable," said Pettine.

Suddenly, in the third quarter, the offense was at the Denver 1-yard line. Pettine was begging, "Please don't fuck this up." Bilal Powell fumbled into the end zone, and lineman Matt Slauson recovered for the touchdown. "Un-fucking-believable." Pettine sighed. "Line drive in the box score," said one of his assistant coaches, eyes front. The Jets led 10-3.

Pettine played personnel chess with the Broncos, sending one group out a few steps and then withdrawing them: "I want to go big sub – not yet!" Denver changed to a running set. "We've got big people in. We're OK." Tebow heaved a pass that appeared bound for a snowdrift outside Aspen. "Oh!" cried the coaching box in wonder. But it was Sanchez who made the crucial mistake. On a third and six, instead of saying uncle, he threw an interception that was returned for a game-tying touchdown. "Fuck me!" roared Pettine. "And he's got Joe McKnight one-on-one with the linebacker."

They had contained Tebow so far, but as the third quarter ended, Pettine asked Ryan, "Want to heat him up, Rex? Just asking." Instead they went with extra coverage. A nifty one-handed catch by Joe McKnight led to a Jets field goal, making the score 13-10 in the Jets' favor with nine minutes and 14 seconds left. Then the defense stuffed the Broncos on third and two. "Let's go up two scores," said Pettine hopefully. But the offense stalled, and was forced to punt, pushing the Broncos to their own 5-yard line. To this point, eight of the 11 Broncos possessions had lasted three plays. On their third downs, the Broncos were one for 11. Tebow had run twice for 11 yards. Passing, he was six for 15. It was difficult to imagine any team playing better defense on short rest than the Jets were. There were five minutes and 54 seconds left. "All we got to do is keep the edge," said Pettine. They couldn't. Tebow began dropping back and either completing passes or working the dog-and-tennis-ball. "Tell these guys to stop flying by the quarterback," Pettine cried. Tebow had become a football Sherman, leading an inexorable march. Into Jets territory he went, the crowd chanting his name.

With the Broncos across the Jets' 30, again Pettine considered the blitz, which he had yet to show. "At some point we got to come after him. Is now the time?" At third and four at the 20, with three Bronco wideouts in formation and nothing else showing signs of stopping the Broncos, Pettine asked Ryan, "Want to come after him, Rex?" Ryan did. The call was Comcast, meaning the safety was to blitz. He charged, Tebow eluded him, and with the edge now uncontained, the Colorado plains opened up vast and unpopulated. In the end zone Cro lingered behind Bronco receivers as Tebow heavy-hoofed toward the goal line for the lead.

The game ended at 17-13, Broncos. Tebow sank to a knee as up in the booth Pettine said, "Oh, this is a kick in the nuts, boys." In the locker room, Schotty was slumped, speechless. "Job's not for the faint of heart," he told me later. Ryan looked at his players, who had just lost twice in four days, and spoke them a threnody: "It stings. It hurts. I believe in this team. Am I the only guy who believes in this team?"