By Larry Fine
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Reuters) - The New York Jets rose to their coach's challenge by striking early in a 32-3 thumping of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday to boost their record to 2-0 in National Football League (NFL) action.
The Jets had gone 16 straight games without a first-quarter touchdown but snapped that streak on the first possession of the game when quarterback Mark Sanchez connected on a 17-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.
New York also scored on the very next series, adding two points on Jacksonville's third offensive play when defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson sacked Jaguars quarterback Luke McCown in the end zone for a safety and grabbed a 15-3 advantage by intermission before turning the game into a blowout.
The Jets, who thrive off one of the NFL's most feared defenses, usually boot the ball to the opposition and rely on their defenders even when they win the opening coin toss and have the option to receive the ball first.
This time, however, Jets coach Rex Ryan decided to show his confidence in Sanchez and the offense by electing to receive the ball to start the game.
"Last night we challenged the team," Ryan told reporters. "There's one streak we wanted to break and that was it, that first quarter and struggling offensively. It was great."
Defensive back Antonio Cromartie, who had a big game with two interceptions and a pair of long kickoff returns, got the Jets started by running the opening kick back 39 yards to give New York good field position.
"We received the ball and Cro had a great kick return. Obviously we had a great drive and the touchdown, Sanchez to Santonio. That was big," said Ryan.
Sanchez said coach Ryan made the perfect call.
"Last night, he just said 'we're gonna take the ball' from the kickoff if we won the toss," the quarterback said. "It worked out great, we answered the call."
Sanchez, focusing on favorite receivers Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller, who made six catches for 101 yards, went 17-of-24 for 182 yards and two touchdowns before giving way to back-up Mark Brunell in the fourth quarter.
The third-year signal caller, who also ran for 29 yards on three scrambles, was hard on himself after the game for tossing a pair of first-half interceptions into heavy coverage.
"We should have been up 29-3 in the first half if I don't turn it over," said Sanchez, who banged up his right throwing shoulder on one of the hits applied by the Jaguars but said he was not injured.
"You can't get greedy, you can't try to force it down the field. Just got to let our guys work, let our run-game develop and I think we did that in the second half. We just have to stay patient."
The vaunted defense of the Jets held the Jaguars offense to 203 total yards, and their dominant secondary intercepted Jacksonville quarterback McCown four times.
McCown finished a dismal 6-for-19 passing for 59 yards before being replaced by first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert, who went 5-of-6 for 52 yards in his NFL debut.
Cromartie said getting out ahead of the Jaguars was a key element in the victory.
"Getting ahead of them early got them out of their game," the cornerback said.
Jacksonville, who dropped to 1-1, visit the Carolina Panthers next week, while the Jets travel to Oakland to play the Raiders.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)