EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Mark Sanchez needed one play to get his NFL career off to a rousing start.
Sanchez completed a 48-yard pass to David Clowney on his first NFL play, and the Jets rookie engineered an early scoring drive in New York's 23-20 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Friday night.
Thomas Jones' 1-yard touchdown dive capped Sanchez's only series of the night, but the Rams rallied in the fourth quarter to make a winner of Steve Spagnuolo in his head coaching debut.
Sanchez, selected with the fifth overall pick, came in to a loud ovation with 28 seconds left in the first quarter. He took the snap and lofted a pretty pass down the right sideline into Clowney's hands for a big gain.
Seven plays later, Jones took the handoff and leaped over the pile, the ball crossing the goal line before Todd Johnson knocked it out of Jones' hands. Spagnuolo challenged the call, but it was upheld by video review.
Sanchez, with several family members in attendance, completed three of four passes for 88 yards in Rex Ryan's first game as New York's head coach.
"To hear the roar of the crowd when we run out of the tunnel and to complete a big play on your very first NFL pass ever," Sanchez said, "that was pretty fun and I'm glad it finally came together."
Kellen Clemens, competing with Sanchez for the starting job, completed all four of his pass attempts for a total of 24 yards and was sacked once in two series.
Trailing 20-16, St. Louis took advantage of a muffed punt return by the Jets' Paul Raymond to get the ball deep in New York territory. Rookie Keith Null, who came on in place of the injured Brock Berlin, put the Rams back ahead three plays later on a 13-yard touchdown pass to Sean Walker with 7:32 remaining.
Spagnuolo, who interviewed for the Jets job, won in his return to the Meadowlands for the first time as a head coach. Spagnuolo was the defensive coordinator for the Giants the last two seasons.
Erik Ainge, 10 of 17 for 148 yards, put the Jets ahead 20-16 with 10:27 left when he playfaked and found Clowney wide open down the middle of the field for a 50-yard touchdown.
Clowney, who led the AFC in yards receiving last preseason, had three catches for 102 yards.
St. Louis scored first, taking advantage of a turnover when Leonard Little had a strip-sack of Clemens and James Hall recovered. Four plays later, Josh Brown kicked a 48-yard field goal, the first of three on the night, to give St. Louis a 3-0 lead.
Clemens then led the Jets on a 10-play, 61-yard drive — including Brad Smith's 28-yard reverse and Clemens' 2-yard scramble after slipping out of Gary Gibson's grasp in the backfield — that was capped by Jay Feely's 33-yard field goal.
Samkon Gado avoided a tackle attempt by James Ihedigbo and zipped 77 yards into the end zone just 25 seconds into the third quarter to give St. Louis a 16-10 lead.
Feely kicked a 30-yard field goal with 7:29 left in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 16-13. The eight-play, 54-yard drive was helped by a 34-yard run by rookie Shonn Greene.
Ryan's defense gave up a couple of big plays, including Laurent Robinson's 50-yard catch from Marc Bulger, but was aggressive early with three sacks.
Bulger was 4 of 4 for 77 yards in three series.