For six straight days, the New York Jets did nothing but talk trash, building up their third match this season against the New England Patriots while putting down the Patriots themselves. At times, their talk was goofy, at times it was nasty, at times it was threatening. But all of it would have been for naught without a victory Sunday in Foxborough. Lucky for them, their actions spoke louder than their words.
The Jets defense held the Patriots out of the end zone for nearly three quarters, sacking Tom Brady five times and recovering two late onside kicks to secure a 28-21 Jets victory over the Patriots. The Patriots have now lost their last three playoff games, including their last two at Gillette Stadium, dating back to Super Bowl XLII in February, 2008.
Defense Can’t Make Big Plays
All season long, the Patriots defense lived and died on its ability to force turnovers. Teams racked up yards, but every time the Patriots would force a fumble or an interception to shift momentum in their favor. But there were no interceptions against the Jets. There was barely any pressure. The Patriots could not sack or even hit Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez even once. The lack of pressure allowed Sanchez to complete 64 percent of his passes, including for three touchdowns.
Sanchez’s accurate passing and great protection allowed him to exploit a Patriots secondary that finally showed its youth and inexperience. On second-and-goal from the New England 7-yard line, running back LaDainian Tomlinson ran to his left and lined up behind other receivers. Gary Guyton lost track of him, and Tomlinson ran a quick corner route, catching the ball and beating Guyton to the left pylon, putting the Jets up 7-3 with 12:20 left in the second quarter.
In the fourth quarter, with the Jets up 14-11, Sanchez found wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery on a quick crossing route. Cotchery then leaped, juked and dodged his way for 58 yards, setting the Jets up at the New England 13. Two plays later, Sanchez floated a pass to Santonio Holmes in the back of the end zone. It was a perfect pass, too high to be defensed, and Holmes leaped and caught it in the back-left corner, keeping two feet inbounds for the touchdown, extending the Jets lead to 21-11.
The Patriots had just as little success against the run, allowing 120 rushing yards and a touchdown. Jets running back Shonn Greene’s 16-yard touchdown run pushed the Jets lead to 28-14 with less than two minutes in the game, effectively clinching the victory.
Patriots Offense Finds Rhythm Too Late
It took the Patriots too long to figure out the Jets’ defensive schemes. They went without a touchdown for nearly three quarters of the game, finally scoring on a 2-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler. Brady dropped back to pass, then had to wait several seconds while receivers tried to get open. Although Brady was sacked five times and hit twice more, his protection held up this time, and he hit Crumpler in the back of the end zone. A direct snap to Sammy Morris added two more points, cutting the Jets lead to 14-11 to begin the fourth quarter. But the defense could not stop the Jets, and the Patriots’ next drive ended on a dropped fourth-down pass to Deion Branch that would have given them a first down.
Brady found Branch on a 13-yard crossing route in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, cutting the score to 28-21, but the Jets recovered their second consecutive onside kick, knelt once and ended the game.
The Patriots appeared to be picking up where they left off in December (a 45-3 victory) on their first drive of the game. Brady moved from his 16-yard line to the New York 28 on seven plays: four passes and three runs. But on first-and-10 from the 28, Brady was flushed to his right and overthrew BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Jets linebacker David Harris intercepted Brady and returned it all the way to the New England 12. That drive ended with a 30-yard field goal attempt that sailed just wide of the left goalpost.
The Patriots dodged a bullet, but the rare Patriots turnover made the Jets defense confident. They were unafraid to blitz and pressure Brady, who many times had to throw the ball away or rush his passes, at least twice throwing at receivers who had not yet turned to face him. Brady finished the game 29/45 for 299 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. His final quarterback rating was 89.0. Sanchez finished with a rating of 127.3.
Special Teams Gaffes
For much of the regular season, the Patriots special teams unit was one of its strengths. But against the Jets, it was a definite weakness. Although the Patriots converted both field goals and extra points, they also failed on two consecutive onside kick attempts, both of which could have been recovered with better execution. Instead, the Jets recovered both, returning the first to the New England 20-yard line and setting up Greene’s touchdown run.
The Patriots also muffed a fake punt attempt with a minute to go in the first half. On fourth-and-4 from the New England 38-yard line, Patrick Chung dropped the direct snap. He tried to scramble for the first down, but was tackled for no gain. The Jets took over and scored on a 15-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards, who dragged two Patriots defensive backs into the end zone with him for the score, extending the Jets lead to 14-3.
The Patriots looked like they might answer on their final drive of the first half, which began all the way at their 45-yard line. But a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty killed that drive, and the Patriots were forced to take a knee and hit the lockers.
Another First-Round Loss
The Patriots played sloppy, mistake-heavy football, and the Jets still had to play close to perfectly to win the game. This game came down to big plays. The Jets made more, and they won. For the Patriots, another season’s hopes for a fourth Lombardi Trophy die after just one game. The Jets played passionate, aggressive football, and they were rewarded with a trip to Pittsburgh and a second-consecutive appearance in the AFC Championship game.
Brady has a reputation as a player who always rises to the challenge of the playoffs, whose emotions carry him to a transcendent level on the national stage. But for two straight years, Brady has appeared to be the less interested, less emotional quarterback on the field. Even when the Patriots started scoring in the final minutes, the team lacked the Jets’ fire, their energy. The mechanical, business-like, formation-heavy style of the Patriots that won three Super Bowls may finally have worn off. To win big, perhaps you need more heart.