By Art Martone
FOXBORO -- After a week of talking the talk, the Jets came into Gillette Stadium Sunday and walked the walk.
Did they ever.
Taking control of the game defensively in the second quarter, New York clamped down on the NFL's highest scoring offense. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez managed the game masterfully when he had to, and came up with big plays in the fourth quarter when he needed them. And through it all it was the Patriots -- the favored Patriots, the 14-2 Patriots, the (supposedly) Super Bowl-bound Patriots -- who looked befuddled and bewildered in the face of suffocating secondary coverage and unexpected blitz packages.
As a result, it's the Jets heading to the AFC Championship Game and the Patriots heading home after New York's 28-21 victory.
"It's a tough way to end it," said coach Bill Belichick. "We're a better team than we played today."
They certainly looked nothing like the team that won its final seven regular-season games -- including a suffocating 45-3 thrashing of the Jets on Dec. 6 -- and finished with the NFL's best record. New York took control of the game in the second quarter through a combination of defensive schemes that seemed to confuse Tom Brady and a ball-control offense that took advantage of its opportunities. They were by uncharacteristic New England mistakes . . . the biggest being a flubbed fake-punt attempt late in the first half when New York was holding a slim 7-3 lead, which led to a Jets touchdown that put them in charge at 14-3.
"We picked the wrong time to play our worst game," said wide receiver Deion Branch.
The Pats were finally able to regain some rhythm offensively in the second half and cut the lead to 14-11 with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute of the third quarter. The score reawakened what had become an almost totally silent Gillette Stadium -- save for the several thousand Jets fan who were enjoying themselves immensely to that point -- and looked like it would set the stage for a rousing fourth quarter.
But then it was the Patriots' defense -- which, to that point, had played credibly -- that collapsed. A blown coverage left Jerricho Cotchery wide open over the middle on a second-and-6 play from the Jets' 29 at the start of the fourth quarter, and he turned it into a 58-yard run-and-catch that moved the ball to the New England 13. Three plays later, on third-and-4 from the 7, Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone, putting New York back in front by 10, 21-11.
The Patriots took possession and began moving the ball, but -- to New York's advantage -- showed almost no sense of urgency and wiped nearly eight minutes off the clock on a drive that ended with the Pats giving up the ball on downs on New York's 34-yard line. At that point -- Jets ahead by 10, with the ball, and little more than five minutes left -- the outcome was inevitable.
"There were [five] minutes left, and if we scored a touchdown it [would have been] a three-point game," said Brady in explaining why the Pats didn't turn up the intensity on that drive. "But we ended up with a field goal."
There was plenty of scoring in the final two minutes -- a 35-yard field goal by Shayne Graham with 1:57 to play; a 16-yard touchdown run by Shonn Greene after the Jets recovered the Pats' onside kick; a 13-yard Brady to Deion Branch TD pass in the closing seconds -- but the outcome had been decided by then.
In retrospect, it was decided in the first half. The Patriots moved the ball with ease on their first two possessions, but -- in what was perhaps a bit of foreshadowing -- came away with only three points. The first drive was shortcircuited when Brady threw his first interception since Oct. 17, overshooting BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a screen attempt at the Jets' 28 and getting picked by linebacker David Harris, who was run down by Alge Crumpler at the Pats' 12 after taking it back 52 yards.
The Pats' defense stood tall, stopping the Jets cold, and New York came away empty-handed when Nick Folk missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt. The Patriots resumed their attack, going from their 21 to Jets' 7 (big play: 29-yard completion from Brady to Crumpler that got the ball to the New York 12), but Crumpler dropped a catchable pass in the end zone on third down and the Pats had to settle for a 34-yard field goal from Graham and a 3-0 lead.
"3 points down after those 2 drives is not bad," Tweeted ex-Jets great Joe Namath, and he was right.
And the game seemed to turn on Crumpler's drop. The Jets' offense, held to 36 yards in the first quarter, found its footing. While it didn't immediately pay off in points, it did pay off in field position: pinning the Patriots back deep in their own territory, and giving the Jets the ball consistently near midfield.
Sanchez finally capitalized with 10:24 to go in the second quarter, driving the Jets 49 yards in five plays and hitting LaDainian Tomlinson with a seven-yard touchdown pass that put New York ahead -- to stay, as it turned out -- by a 7-3 score.
New England made its biggest error in the final two minutes. Faced with a fourth-and-4 from their own 38, the Pats tried a rare gadget play -- a fake punt -- but Patrick Chung fumbled the direct snap and was nailed for a one-yard loss.
"We just made a bad mistake [on the fake punt]," said Belichick. When asked to elaborate, he responded: "I'm not going into that."
Punter Zoltan Mesko, however, said in the locker room that Chung called the play.
The Jets took immediate advantage, as Tomlinson ran for 22 yards on the next two plays and, on a third-on-4 from the 15, Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards with a TD pass that made the score 14-3.
Sanchez finished the game at a workmanlike 16-for-25 for 194 yards -- but with three touchdowns -- and had with the edge on Brady, who was sacked five times and wound up 29-for-45 for 299 yards.
"I don't know if we confused [Brady]," said Jets safety Eric Smith. "It was about making him take the snap [and] then read the defense . . . [instead] of just lining up, getting under the center and knowing where to go with the ball."
"In order to score points, you've got to consistently be able to put together plays, and we could never really do that, or find a rhythm, and they made a lot of plays," Brady said. "They didn't make many mistakes. We made too many mistakes, there was too many plays that weren't the way we drew them up."
Nor was it the way they drew up the ending to a delightfully surprising -- but ultimately disappointing -- season.
Art Martone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.