Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason threw a club-record five touchdown passes Sunday to sustain the Bengals' wild-card chances and send the New York Jets into the playoffs as a downtrodden team.
Esiason threw four second-half touchdown passes to rally the Bengals to a come-from-behind, 52-21 victory over the playoff-bound Jets, who finish the season with five consecutive losses.
The third-year quarterback completed 23 of 30 passes for a career-high 425 yards against a defense that ranks last against the pass in the NFL. His passing led the Bengals to a club-record 621 total yards.
"It's gratifying to get some of those numbers I've expected all year long," said Esiason, who had never thrown for 400 yards as a pro.
The Bengals' satisfaction was tempered by the uncertainty of their situation. Cincinnati (10-6) will earn a wild-card berth only if New England loses to the Dolphins tonight at Miami. If that happens, they will play the Chiefs at Kansas City next Sunday.
The Jets (10-6) have clinched at least a wild-card berth despite the five-game losing streak. They'll win the AFC East if the Patriots lose tonight.
Although the Jets had little at stake Sunday as far as their playoff standing, they wanted to end their skid before heading into the playoffs. They built a 21-17 halftime lead behind running back Freeman McNeil's two touchdowns, only to get buried under the Bengals' second-half explosion.
"We have to get back as a team and regroup and try to get ourselves feeling better," Jet Coach Joe Walton said in a subdued tone.
The Jets prospered by the blitz in the first half, pressuring Esiason often and sacking him twice. But he burned them for a pair of touchdowns within 2:25 early in the third quarter to reverse the trend, and lobbed a two-yard scoring pass to lineman Anthony Munoz on a tackle-eligible play to put Cincinnati ahead, 38-21.
With his performance Sunday, Esiason eclipsed Ken Anderson's single-season passing record of 3,754 yards set in the Bengals' Super Bowl season of 1981. Esiason threw for 3,959 yards in 16 regular-season games.
He launched the comeback Sunday by lobbing a 34-yard touchdown pass to uncovered tight end Rodney Holman on a fourth-and-one play to give Cincinnati its first lead of the game at 11:05 of the third quarter.
Esiason threw a 42-yard scoring bomb to wide receiver Cris Collinsworth on Cincinnati's next possession to deflate the Jets' injury-depleted defense.
Collinsworth grabbed a 21-yard touchdown pass from Esiason in the fourth quarter, matching the team record with his third touchdown catch of the game.
The Jets appeared to be coming out of their offensive slump in the first half, before Esiason took control with his passing.
New York's Bobby Humphery silenced the crowd of 51,619 by returning the opening kickoff untouched 96 yards for the second kickoff score of his career.
The teams matched scores after that, with Jim Breech's 43-yard field goal trimming the Jets' lead to 21-17 with five seconds left in the half.
The Jets' offense reverted to its month-long ineptness in the second half. New York had scored just 40 points in the four previous losses, when quarterback Ken O'Brien threw just two touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
O'Brien was intercepted three times Sunday, completing 13 of 27 passes for 106 yards. The Jets had just 199 total yards.
Cincinnati running back James Brooks carried 15 times for 79 yards to top fullback Pete Johnson's club-record 1,077 yards rushing in 1981.