The ball was launched high and far, and Robby Anderson was way past Chidobe Awuzie and all alone near midfield, and that part of MetLife Stadium that had not been overtaken by Cowboys fans exploded with a roar when it came down in Anderson’s hands, then Jeff Heath dove and missed, and Anderson was gone.
It was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and this was the moment, this 92-yard touchdown pass, when Sam Darnold announced his return loud and clear.
Welcome back, Sam Darnold.
Welcome back from mononucleosis.
Welcome back from hell.
Darnold — who was 23-for-32 for 338 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a 24-22 win Sunday — began motoring up field to celebrate with his teammates, who had missed their franchise quarterback every bit as much as he had missed them.
For too long, Darnold had been contagious and quarantined, but on this day, his fearlessness and brilliance were infectious.
This is what franchise quarterbacks do, they lift their franchise in its most desperate hour, make everyone around him better.
And Adam Gase sure looked like a better coach than he did with Luke Falk playing quarterback for him, didn’t he?
Far more importantly, Darnold’s spleen thankfully stood up to the several hits he took, and that was a relief to everyone.
It has gotten late early around here, and it is still late at 1-4. But better late than never.
Darnold had seized the moment immediately after Gang Green had staged a defiant goal-line stand, Quinnen Williams and Jamal Adams stuffing Dak Prescott on a run-pass-option on fourth-and-2 at the 7.
Darnold was in no mood to stop. He had displayed only fleeting signs of rust when he pulled the ball down and took a sack on his first possession. But not now. Not here.
He hit Demaryius Thomas for 33 yards and tight end Ryan Griffin with the 5-yard TD that made it Jets 21, Cowboys 3.
Then he hung on for dear life.
It all came down to a 2-point conversion.
Prescott capitalized on three pass interference penalties and capped a desperation final drive with a 4-yard TD run with 43 seconds left.
On the ensuing two-point conversion attempt, Gregg Williams called for a Jamal Adams blitz, and Prescott threw incomplete over the middle for Jason Witten.
Prescott previously had marched the Cowboys 84 yards in 11 plays, and Ezekiel Elliott’s 5-yard TD run made it 21-16.
Darnold had it back with 6:21 left.
His offense had sputtered down the stretch. He had thrown an interception behind Jamison Crowder in the red zone. The momentum had shifted.
Cowboys fans were chanting, “Dee-fense.”
Darnold stepped up in the pocket then on the move threw a 30-yard completion to Crowder. Then a back-shoulder throw for Anderson for 19 more. He stalled at the 20. Sam Ficken booted the 38-yard field goal that made it 24-16.
On the 14-play, 83-yard TD drive in the first quarter, Darnold had showed touch and accuracy on a 24-yard pass to Crowder isolated down the left sideline against Anthony Brown on third-and-4. Then, on third-and-goal at the 7, he spotted an opening up the middle and was pulled down by a horse-collar tackle by Maliek Collins that set up Le’Veon Bell’s 2-yard TD run.
Maybe this can still be his flight to stardom, riding shotgun alongside Gase and ending the Jets’ eight-year playoff drought at last. The hole they have dug for themselves remains deep.
There is only a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.
But if this can be the start of the second-year leap the Jets were expecting him to make, then he will keep hope alive.
Welcome back, Sam Darnold.