EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Jets needed someone to save the game, and possibly their season.
Tim Tebow was unavailable, so Rex Ryan turned to third-stringer Greg McElroy, who stepped in for a struggling Mark Sanchez and energized the Jets and their fans.
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’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.’”
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 Sanchez for McElroy late in the third quarter — as the crowd at MetLife Stadium cheered wildly.
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, but I was excited about getting a shot to get in there.”
As McElroy got the offense moving, Sanchez stood on the sideline along with Tebow and next to offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
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).
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. Sanchez was told by Sparano that his day was over, and then met Ryan on the sideline as McElroy began to warm up.
“From the get-go, from the first play, it just wasn’t my day,” Sanchez said.
It should make for an interesting week around the Jets’ facility. If Tebow is healthy enough to play, he could be in line to start next week — at Jacksonville against his hometown Jaguars.
If not, Ryan will have to take a hard look at McElroy, a 2011 seventh-round pick out of Alabama who missed last season with a thumb injury.
“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.”
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.”
On McElroy’s second drive, he completed a swing pass to Kahlil Bell, who fumbled deep in Jets territory. Lindley connected with Michael Floyd on a 16-yard gain, but things stalled and Arizona got a 35-yard field goal by Jay Feely, another ex-Jet, that made it 7-6 with 10:39 left.
The only scoring in the opening half came on Feely’s 48-yarder as time expired. The 10-play drive was helped by a fake punt on from the Cardinals 25 when Rashad Johnson took a direct snap and zipped downfield 40 yards.
Things started on an ominous note for the Jets as Sanchez was intercepted by Rhodes on New York’s first offensive play. Ryan criticized Rhodes in his book “Play Like You Mean It” last year for being a “selfish” player, and New York traded him after the 2009 season.
“It’s a tough situation for (Sanchez) now where everyone is pretty much against him,” Rhodes said. “Whatever he does that’s not positive will be taken like it was today. I talked to him during the game when got benched. I went over there and talked to him on the side and told him to keep his head up.”
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 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.