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Plax is back: Burress leads Jets past Bengals 27-7
By DENNIS WASZAK Jr., AP Sports Writer Monday, Aug 22, 2011

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP)—Plaxico Burress(notes) stepped onto the football field, looked around and smiled.

It was exactly what he had been dreaming about for nearly three years. He was back, he thought, right where he should be.

“It was like an out-of-body experience, a surreal feeling,” the New York Jets wide receiver said. “I just tried to stay focused.”

No problems there. Burress caught three passes for 66 yards, including a terrific 26-yard, over-the-shoulder touchdown reception, in his first NFL game since 2008 to help the Jets beat the Cincinnati Bengals 27-7 in a preseason game Sunday night.

“Everything feels normal,” Burress said, adding that he wasn’t nervous at all. “It feels like football. To be honest, it feels like I never left.”

But the journey back was hardly easy. His last game was Nov. 23, 2008, at Arizona while with the Giants and a few days later, he accidentally shot himself in the leg in a Manhattan nightclub. He served 20 months in prison on a gun charge, missed the birth of his daughter and despite thinking he’d still be able to play, had to wonder if the NFL would even be an option when he got out.

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“I just can’t imagine being away that long from my family and my teammates,” Bengals safety Chris Crocker(notes) said. “He was just all alone. Anytime you go to prison, that’s a different world. It’s a different beast. To go back into a locker room and feel welcome, I’m sure it made him feel very good.”

It certainly did. Yep, Plax was back.

Signed last month by New York, Burress made his debut with the Jets (1-1) a memorable one. He caught a 20-yard pass from Mark Sanchez(notes) on the Jets’ first offensive play, prompting huge cheers from the rain-soaked crowd at the New Meadowlands Stadium.

“He was ready to play,” Sanchez said. “He’s been waiting for this for a long time, so I didn’t have to say anything or do anything, really, except get him a ball that he could catch and he was rolling after the first play.”

Burress had another 20-yard grab in the second quarter, but the highlight came on New York’s last offensive play of the first half.

Burress took off down the left side, drew separation from defensive back Fred Bennett(notes) in one-on-one coverage and hauled in the pass as he dropped into the end zone to put New York up 17-7 just before halftime. Burress got up and bowed a few times to the crowd, which had seen him make similar plays for years with the Steelers and Giants.

“It’s a good thing to make it seem like everything is going in slow motion because that means the game is still slow to me,” he said. “Nothing’s moving fast. To have that ball hanging up in the air like that with the lights and different things like that, I just trusted myself to make an over-the-shoulder catch and try to bring it in.”

Burress recently turned 34 and has acknowledged that many doubt he can return to the elite level he was playing at before that night three years ago. But the former Super Bowl star with the Giants has insisted throughout training camp—even while he was hobbled by a sprained left ankle—that he expects to be a game-changing receiver again.

After missing the preseason opener at Houston because of the ankle injury, Burress backed up his bold words against the Bengals (0-2).

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Burress said. “I’m just getting started.”

Sure it was only a preseason game, but it was huge for Burress, who just a few months ago was cleaning toilets, mopping floors and serving meals in prison. He was cheered as he ran out of the tunnel with the offense in pregame introductions, and got a nice hand when he zipped across the field and Sanchez immediately got him involved with a 20-yard completion.

“It’s different,” Sanchez said. “I’ve never had a target like him.”

After a slow start with the Jets because of not being able to practice fully until last week, Burress saw seven passes come his way. Now, he needs to keep building a rapport with Sanchez.

“We left a few plays out there that we should’ve hit,” Burress said, “but the sky’s the limit.”

Sanchez finished 12 of 20 for 173 yards and two touchdowns, the first to Santonio Holmes(notes), as the Jets’ starting offense played the entire first half. The running game, without starter Shonn Greene(notes), stalled during the first two quarters, gaining just 17 yards, as a driving rain fell. LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) had just 16 yards on nine carries.

Cincinnati’s offense struggled as rookie Andy Dalton(notes), the second-round pick out of TCU, threw two interceptions that resulted in scores by New York. Dalton was 4 of 11 for 29 yards after one quarter, and finished 8 of 19 for 86 yards.

“It wasn’t good enough,” Dalton said. “I have to come out and play better.”

On the Bengals’ second possession, Eric Smith(notes) intercepted Dalton’s pass intended for A.J. Green(notes), who tipped the ball into the safety’s hands. After a few steps, Smith lateraled the ball to Darrelle Revis(notes), who brought the ball to the Bengals 16. One play later, Sanchez connected with Holmes to give the Jets a 7-0 lead.

Dalton made another mistake a few minutes later when he overthrew Andre Caldwell(notes) on third-and-15 from the 22 and the ball landed in the hands of a waiting Jim Leonhard(notes), who returned it 35 yards to the Cincinnati 10. The Jets’ offense stalled and settled for Nick Novak’s(notes) 30-yard field goal that made it 10-0.

“He continues to work through the rough spots of playing this game as a rookie,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said about Dalton. “He experienced some different conditions, playing with a wet ball. It was just another good step as he moves forward.”

Dalton did engineer a terrific 70-yard scoring drive—his first of the preseason—early in the second quarter that was capped by Brian Leonard’s(notes) 1-yard rush.

“We had our first touchdown of the season and it was a good drive,” Leonard said. “We need to protect the ball better and not have as many penalties. Once we clear those things up, we’ll be able to move the ball.”

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