EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Mark Sanchez's day was over, benched for the first time in his NFL career and his status as the New York Jets' starting quarterback suddenly uncertain.
Tim Tebow was expected to be the biggest threat to Sanchez's job. Turns out, it might be third-stringer Greg McElroy.
McElroy threw a touchdown pass to cap his first NFL drive early in the fourth quarter, leading New York to an ugly 7-6 victory Sunday and sending the Arizona Cardinals to their eighth straight loss.
"It was fun," said McElroy, the team's seventh-round pick last year out of Alabama. "We were having a good time. It was exciting to get a shot and go in there."
Well, he might get another next week at Jacksonville.
Rex Ryan must decide this week whether he'll give Sanchez another shot as the Jets' starting quarterback, see what the team has in McElroy or go with Tebow, who could make his homecoming against the Jaguars if he's healthy enough.
"I'll let you guys know who's going to be the quarterback when I'm ready to," Ryan said. "We'll look at our situation and evaluate as the week goes on."
With Tebow inactive as he heals from two broken ribs and the Jets needing to win their last five games to even have a chance of making the playoffs, Ryan pulled a badly struggling Sanchez for McElroy late in the third quarter — as the crowd at MetLife Stadium cheered wildly.
"It's just something that I sensed, that I felt," Ryan said. "When you're around this game long enough, you get that feeling that, 'You know what? I've seen enough, and it's time to make that change.'"
McElroy then led the Jets (5-7) to their only points of the day with an impressive 10-play drive, rolling to his right on a bootleg and tossing a 1-yard pass to a wide-open Jeff Cumberland in the end zone 5 seconds into the fourth quarter.
"I'm really happy for the team, and really happy for Greg," Sanchez said. "He came in and played his butt off."
Fans chanted "Mc-El-Roy!" throughout the first three quarters as Sanchez went 10 of 21 for 97 yards and three interceptions, including two by former Jets safety Kerry Rhodes.
"It's tough to kind of gauge the energy," McElroy said, smiling. "Obviously, I didn't have, like, a decibel meter where I could tell what the crowd noise was."
It was loud, Greg. Just ask your teammates.
"Well," safety Yeremiah Bell said, "you can definitely tell that the stadium was happy about it."
Sanchez left with 4:48 left in the third quarter and the Jets trailing 3-0 after a third-down pass was batted down by Ronald Talley.
"From the get-go, from the first play, it just wasn't my day," Sanchez said.
After being told by offensive coordinator Tony Sparano that his day was done, Sanchez went over to Ryan, who confirmed the decision, and then found McElroy.
"He just gave me a hug and said, 'Go get 'em,'" McElroy said.
And, he certainly did. McElroy, reading the plays off his left wristband after getting few snaps in practice all week, was cheered with each completion, including a 13-yarder on third down to Jeremy Kerley with 3 minutes left that helped seal the victory. McElroy finished 5 of 7 for 29 yards against the Cardinals (4-8).
While the Jets' quarterback situation is unclear, the sagging Cardinals have their own troubles at the position. Ryan Lindley was ineffective in his second NFL start as Arizona went an abysmal 0 for 15 in third-down situations.
"This whole streak we've been in isn't any fun," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "You work hard as a team, you prepare. I don't see any finger-pointing or fracturing. We've got a good group of players and a good group of young leaders.
"Make no mistake: They want to win."
Lindley was harassed by a defense that took full advantage of an unsteady rookie quarterback. He went 10 of 31 for 72 yards and an interception while playing for Kevin Kolb, who missed his sixth straight game with a rib injury.
"I felt we were going to chip away and get something going, but it kind of stopped for us," Lindley said. "A lot of things went wrong that could have been done better. You have to pick up and move on."
Whisenhunt considered making his own quarterback change, but kept Lindley in.
"As the head coach, you have to make those decisions," Whisenhunt said. "You always do what you think gives you the best chance. That's what we did."
Jay Feely, another former Jet, accounted for all of the Cardinals scoring with a 48-yard field goal as time expired in the first half, and a 35-yarder that made it 7-6 with 10:39 left in the game.
"I am lost for words on that one," Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington said. "I don't know where to go from here. You have just got to stay positive and hopefully we can get back to work and somehow get a victory."
NOTES: New York's Nick Folk hit the left upright on a 46-yard field-goal attempt and dinged a 52-yarder off the right upright. ... The Jets, ranked 30th against the run, held the Cardinals to 67 yards rushing, 40 coming on Rashad Johnson's fake punt. ... Shonn Greene quietly had his second 100-yard rushing game of the season, 104 on 24 carries. ... Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald was held to one catch for 23 yards.
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