ATLANTA — After plenty of mistakes in his first four games, Geno Smith suddenly looked like a wily ol’ veteran for the New York Jets.
The rookie quarterback threw three touchdown passes, didn’t turn the ball over at all and guided the Jets on a clutch drive that set up Nick Folk’s winning field goal on the final play, giving New York a 30-28 victory over the struggling Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.
After the Falcons went ahead on the first play after the two-minute warning, Smith calmly completed four straight passes and also broke off an 8-yard run that set up Folk’s 43-yard field goal as time expired.
The Jets (3-2) have been waiting for this sort of performance from Smith, who came into the game leading the NFL with 11 turnovers, including eight interceptions. The previous week, he was picked off twice and lost two fumbles in a 38-13 rout by the Tennessee Titans.
But this was a different Geno. He completed 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards, threw almost as many touchdown passes as he had in the first four games (four), and zealously protected the ball.
“My confidence is always sky-high,” Smith said. “Nothing can bring me down. I’m just going to continue to work. And we’re putting this one behind us. We’re getting on that bus, well enjoy it for a little bit, then get back to work.”
Smith put in extra work at practice to cut down on turnovers, and it sure paid off.
“It’s a mindset,” he said. “I made it my duty to come out here and not put the ball on the ground and not put my team in jeopardy. It came down to a last-second drive against a tough Atlanta team on the road. We stood up tonight. It just speaks volume to this team’s character.”
The Falcons rallied from a 27-14 deficit in the fourth quarter, going ahead on Matt Ryan’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Levine Toilolo with 1:54 remaining.
Jacquizz Rodgers scored on a pair of touchdown runs, and Ryan also threw a scoring pass to Jason Snelling.
But the Falcons (1-4) are now mired in their longest losing streak since 2007. Considered a Super Bowl contender at the beginning of the season, they head into a bye week mired in a three-game skid.
“He’s a rookie,” Atlanta safety William Moore said, “and we make him look like a 10-year veteran.”
The Jets led 17-7 after a goal-line stand on the final play of the first half, which turned out to be awful big at the end of the game.
Atlanta had two cracks at the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1. The first attempt resulted in an incomplete pass, but the Jets were called for pass interference when they grabbed Gonzalez as he tried to get open.
The Falcons again passed on a chip-shot field goal, and curiously decided to hand it to their smallest back — Rodgers is just 5-foot-6 and 196 pounds — for a power run behind the Falcons’ shaky offensive line. Rodgers was swallowed up by the New York line, sending the Jets racing off the field in celebration while the Falcons staggered to their locker room to a round of boos from the Georgia Dome crowd.
But Rodgers and the Falcons rallied in the second half.
The diminutive back scored on a 4-yard run midway through the third quarter, then broke off a 19-yard score to cut the Jets’ lead to 27-21 with 8:10 remaining.
The Falcons surged ahead, taking advantage of a holding call on Demario Davis after the Jets batted down a pass to Rodgers. Two plays later, Ryan hooked up with Toilolo, a backup tight end known more for his blocking, on the go-ahead touchdown.
But New York had plenty of time to pull off the winning drive.
Smith completed a 12-yard pass to Stephen Hill, a 13 yarder to Jeremy Kerley, and a 9-yarder to Hill again. Smith scrambled around left end to the Atlanta 38, handed off to Bilal Powell for a 4-yard run before hooking up with Clyde Gates on a 3-yard pass that had the Jets safely in Folk’s range. Powell rumbled for 6 yards, the Jets let the clock run down to 3 seconds and sent on their kicker.
There was no doubt about it.
Ryan completed 36 of 45 passes for 319 yards. Tony Gonzalez hauled in 10 receptions for 97 yards and became just the second player in NFL history to catch a pass in 200 consecutive games, trailing only Jerry Rice (274). Julio Jones had eight catches for 99 yards.
The Falcons were missing six starters because of injuries, and the medical report grew longer. Receiver Roddy White went out in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury, and Jason Snelling didn’t return after sustaining a concussion. In the fourth quarter, Atlanta got so far down the depth chart that a trio of third stringers contributed — Kevin Cone caught a big third-down pass, Antone Smith broke off a key run and Toilolo grabbed the go-ahead touchdown.
It wasn’t enough.