It was billed as this season’s NFL game of the year.
The New York Jets and the New England Patriots.
A pair of 9-2 divisional rivals with a history of hating each other. Each well-rested after ten days off. An AFC East showdown of epic proportions. First place in the division, and the lead for home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs at stake.
It was all on the line, before a national television audience, on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.
There was just one problem… only the home team showed up.
Avenging a 28-14 road loss to the Jets in Week 2, New England thoroughly dominated New York, 45-3, at Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
It was the type of game that Jet fans and their brash, outspoken, and unapologetic head coach Rex Ryan had pointed to since the summer, when he repeatedly told anyone within shouting distance of his loud voice that the Jets would play in Super Bowl XLV.
A potential statement game for the Jets to make their mark on their hated rival, on their division, and on the National Football League as a whole.
But, what we all might have learned is that the Jets’ 9-2, albeit with an early season victory over the Patriots, wasn’t nearly on par with the Patriots’ 9-2.
Perhaps, the Jets’ 9-2 record might have been as over-inflated as their egos, with four of their nine wins coming by virtue of last-minute, Harry Houdini-like escapes, all against teams with losing records.
Sensational at what he does (as one of best broadcasters around) notwithstanding, Jets’ radio play-by-play voice Bob Wichusen, moments before kickoff, echoed the sentiments of many Jets fans and even, much of the New York media for days, leading up to Monday night’s contest. Wichusen said that the Jets might have been on the verge taking the mantle from the Patriots as the new team to beat in the AFC East, if they could beat New England on its home field and force the Patriots into second place in the division.
But, what Monday night’s mismatch might have ultimately proved is that although the Jets are a good team, and still one of the better ones in the NFL, they’re not the Patriots, who adapted and improved far more than the Jets since the teams’ Week 2 meeting.
The Jets are not yet an elite team, and not yet ready to accomplish what many overconfident, and even cocky Jet fans believed, after buying into and following Ryan’s arrogant cue.
If you talk like the Jets, you had better also walk the walk.
Yet, the team that talked, and talked… and… talked… since August, as if it was a collective birthright to play in this year’s Super Bowl, was ironically silenced. And, embarrassed.
For all we heard about how great the Jets would be in games like Monday night on their HBO “Hard Knocks” special, it was the Jets who took the hard knocks themselves, repeatedly, from the Patriots, until New England knocked all of the swagger and bluster right out of the Jets, sending them back to New Jersey with nary a whimper.
“I thought we were going to play a great game, I really did,” Ryan said, after what he also called “the biggest butt-whooping” he’s ever taken during his coaching career.
Instead, the moment appeared much too big for the Jets to handle, as they suffered their worst loss since November 24th, 1986, when New York lost by the same score to the Miami Dolphins, also on Monday Night Football (those two games are tied with others for worst losses in MNF history).
The team that told everyone how great it was all preseason, and which reminded us of their “invincibility” as it barely got by, time after time, during the regular season this year, appeared overwhelmed in one of the biggest games in its franchise’s history.
As a result, the Jets allowed their biggest rival to shine far brighter with a white-hot spotlight glaring on one of the most anticipated Jets-Patriots games ever.
New England jumped to a 17-0 lead after the first quarter, and scored the first four times they touched the ball en route to a 24-3 halftime lead. And, it only got worse from there for the Jets, as the Patriots scored on their first three possessions of the second half.
Quarterback Tom Brady played a near-flawless game, going 21 of 29 for 326 yards, 4 touchdowns, no turnovers, and a 148.9 quarterback rating, while winning his 26th consecutive regular season game at home, to extend the longest such streak in NFL history, as the Jets lost for the first time in nine regular season road games.
In stark contrast, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez often looked lost, completing just 17 of 33 passes for 164 yards and a 27.8 quarterback rating, while throwing three costly interceptions, off of which the Patriots scored a touchdown each time.
The first pick was the only one that really mattered. The Jets still had a chance to get back in the game, down 24-3, early in the third quarter, when Sanchez forced a ball that he shouldn’t have thrown for the Jets’ first red zone turnover of the season.
The last two interceptions merely allowed the game to go from a sound beating to humiliation.
Give Ryan credit at least, for not making excuses. Second-string safety Eric Smith, who was pressed into action due to a broken leg suffered by starting safety Jim Leonhard, committed a key 36-yard pass interference penalty, when he mugged rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, setting up the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game.
Leonhard’s loss was felt all game, yet Ryan insisted, “We’ve got a lot of good players and they needed to step up. Jim Leonhard wasn’t going to make a 45-point difference [defensively].”
Very true, especially when the Jets allowed more passing yards (304) than the total yards they gained (301).
If you read between the lines a little bit, Brady seemed to have taken some satisfaction in the Patriots’ far different style under New England head coach Bill Belichick’s dramatically different, stoic, business-like approach quieting the over-confident Jets.
“We take after our coach,” Brady said. “He always says, when you win, say little, and when you lose, say less.”
One could almost infer from that comment that Brady is indirectly telling the Jets they need to finally keep quiet for a while after losing a battle for first place in the conference by 42 points.
Rubbing salt into the Jets’ wounds, was undrafted, 5-foot-9, all-heart running back Danny Woodhead, whom the Jets cast off after one game this season. Woodhead hurt New York with a career-high 104 receiving yards and a career-high-tying 115 total yards, including a 50-yard catch and run that set up New England’s fifth touchdown.
The Jets also failed to spoil what became a special night for the Patriots on two accounts.
The win was the 107th in the Brady-Belichick era, which ties the duo with Terry Bradshaw and Chuck Knoll for second place, just nine behind Dan Marino and Don Shula, for most NFL victories for a quarterback-head coach combination.
New England’s win also came on Teddy Bruschi night, as the Patriots honored one of the best linebackers in their history, at halftime.
“It was fun to be a New England Patriot on Teddy Bruschi Night, I’ll tell you that,” Brady said with a wide smile. “He’s someone I’ve always looked up to and admired… he’s just a great person… No one had a bigger [heart] than Teddy.”
Belichick added, “That was the best sixty minutes of football we played all year. I’m glad it could be on Teddy Bruschi Night. He was a big part of a lot [of games] like this. I think we got some inspiration from that.”
As humiliating as Monday night’s loss was, Ryan reminded everyone that his team shouldn’t be written off just yet. “You talk about the resiliency of this team, we’ve got the history to back it up,” he said.
That’s the one thing about Ryan’s Jets. They may not have been good enough to cash the huge checks written by Ryan’s mouth on Monday night, but as Belichick said of the Jets, “I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from them.”
They’re both right. Just when we think we won’t hear from them again, we do (see last year’s 3-0 start, followed by a 4-7 slump to a 7-7 record, when Ryan subsequently declared his team out of the playoffs, before the Jets rebounded to come within about 28 minutes of reaching Super Bowl XLIV).
On that note, the Jets will try to pick up the pieces and regroup against the same franchise that last beat New York as bad as it lost on Monday night. The Miami Dolphins (6-6) come to the New Meadowlands stadium to face the Jets on Sunday, at 4:15 pm EST.