FOXBORO — Down the tunnel they came, one after the other, happy Jets’ players making airplane noises. With their arms outstretched, they pretended to fly from the field to the tunnel to the locker room, singing and laughing. Antonio Cromartie led the way, followed closely by teammates like Trevor Pryce and Bart Scott, joyfully gliding down the tunnel toward the visitors’ locker room at Gillette Stadium.
On Sunday night, the Jets couldn’t have drawn up a more ghoulish ending for New England. All week long, New York and coach Rex Ryan had talked about how things were going to be different this time, how 45-3 was an aberration and how the Patriots had better be ready. And it all came true on Sunday afternoon.
The Jets played their game: their defense stopped Tom Brady and the Patriots when it needed to. They protected New York quarterback Mark Sanchez, giving him enough time to operate and allowing the young quarterback to guide all aspects of the Jets’ offense with relatively little trouble. And they got superior special teams play.
But the final scene will be hard to shake: The sight of Cromartie blowing kisses and shushing the crowd like some sort of WWE heel will be nightmare fuel for Patriots’ fans all offseason. The same player who verbally strafed Tom Brady during the week had come up big with the game on the line, denying the Patriots one final chance at a comeback by scooping up the ball on an onsides kick with just over two minutes remaining, extinguishing New England’s final flicker of hope and essentially turning out the lights on the Patriots season.
Cromartie’s quick return got the ball down to the New England 25-yard line, which would set up another New York touchdown. That provoked Ryan to come barreling down the sidelines to celebrate with his team. There would be a late Patriots’ score and another failed onsides attempt, but time eventually ran out on New England, leaving New York on the winning end of a 28-21 decision (click here for the full recap).
As the Jets gleefully ran off the field, they mocked the Patriots with their “Jet Plane” celebration, flipping off Patriots’ fans as they left. It will be a long offseason in New England, but the images of New York players’ back-flipping, dancing and generally enjoying themselves at the expense of the Patriots will be the final bitter image of the season for New England.
“That’s a tough way to end it,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “We gave up too many points. We didn’t score enough, didn’t have good field position in the kicking game. We just didn’t do enough things we need to do to win.
“You can list them all: too many penalties, too many mistakes, missed tackles, missed blocks, pressure, drops, all of the above. That’s what happens when you don’t win: you usually have too many of those types of plays.”
“I think you finish the way we did — we won a bunch in a row against some very good teams and played well … but playoff football comes and really it comes down to who makes the plays,” said Brady, who finished 29-for-45 for 299 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. “We made too many mistakes.”
There were many positive memories for this Patriots’ team: the unlikeliest 14-2 squad in franchise history, they crashed through the second half of the season with only an occasional bump in the road on the way to a home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They proved themselves to be a gutty group of players capable of more mental toughness than the 2009 team, especially when it came to beating quality opponents away from home.
But no matter what they were able to accomplish over 16 regular-season games, the double-whammy of a loss to Ryan and Jets that ends the year means the season will end on a bitter note. For a team that had sincerely started to believe they were headed to the Super Bowl, Monday marks the beginning of an offseason that came three weeks too early.
“It’s like you’re on the treadmill running at 10 miles an hour and then someone just hits the stop button,” Brady said of the end of the season. “[But] I think you’ve got to move on.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
QUICK STARTS WERE A KEY FOR THE NEW ENGLAND OFFENSE ALL SEASON LONG, BUT IT DIDN’T GET ONE SUNDAY
Throughout the course of the 2010 season, New England had seemingly perfected the art of playing with a lead — over the previous five games, the Patriots had scored an average of 23.8 points in the first half, the sixth-highest such average over five games in the NFL since 1997. The fast starts made things easier for the New England defense, as many teams felt the need to try and match the Patriots’ offensive output by getting away from a slow and steady game by taking to the air — that was the case against several good teams like the Bears and Jets. That made good offenses one-dimensional, and much easier to attack.
But on Sunday, the Patriots’ offense couldn’t find a rhythm. Their first half-possessions went: interception, field goal, punt, punt, downs, end of half. Not the sort of output that New England had when it was steamrolling teams over the second half of the season — the last time the Patriots didn’t score at least 31 points was in a Nov. 7 loss to Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Jets had 14 first-half points, and were able to control the tempo for much of the second half. As a result, they played the game on their terms while New England became a one-dimensional, throw-first team down the stretch.
“I think it probably turned into more of a passing game for us as we got behind,” Brady said of the Patriots, who threw the ball 17 times in the first half and 28 times in the second half. “We talked all week about fast starts and getting ahead of these guys and playing from ahead, and we had some opportunities there in the first quarter and really let those slip away. And we made it a dogfight and ultimately couldn’t really dig ourselves out of the holes we made.”
While the Patriots did control time of possession (holding a 35-25 edge) and had more drives of at least eight plays or more (New England had four, while the Jets had one), there was never a sense of that the Patriots had control of the ballgame. Whether it was penalties (New England was flagged for six) or inefficiency on third down (the Patriots converted at just 36 percent on third down) it was always something holding New England back.
“We kept driving the ball, but then we would have something that kills us — just no consistency at all,” Branch said. “The biggest thing is us executing our plays first. We tried not to focus on what they’re doing so much and we just couldn’t execute. Once we got started, something killed us — a flag, couldn’t convert on third down. In the first half, we got the ball in the red zone twice and got one field goal. It was things we weren’t doing earlier in the season. A lot of bad football.”
AS EXPECTED, WES WELKER HAD AN EVENTFUL AFTERNOON
The wide receiver was benched for the start of Sunday’s game, reportedly for his little game of wordplay during the week at the expense of Ryan. While he was on the field to receive the first Jets’ punt of the afternoon, he was quickly yanked from the game for New England’s first offensive possession. He entered the game for good on the Patriots’ second possession of the game, and finished with a team-leading seven catches for 57 yards in the loss.
Neither Belichick nor Welker would comment about the decision after the game.
“We just didn’t execute very well out there, and I think at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to is executing well. And we didn’t do that today. The Jets were a better team today, and we paid the price for it,” Welker said. “They are a great team and they did some great things out there. At the same time, we didn’t execute the way we should have, and we paid the price.”
Welker’s midweek press conference drew the ire of several New York players, including center Nick Mangold and linebacker Bart Scott, the latter of whom said Welker needed to “watch what he said” or his days in the NFL “will be numbered.” After the game, Scott unloaded on several Patriots, including Welker. First, Scott was asked to clarify his comments regarding the New England wide receiver, and he said: “I meant I was going to try and take my helmet and ram it through his chest.”
“That’s my coach,” said Scott of Welker’s indirect comments about Ryan’s video scandal. “I can take comments any way I choose to. That’s my privilege. And I took offense to it and I handled it that way.
“I stand behind my words, and if I get another opportunity for him to come through the middle, I’m going to try and put him through the ground.”
REX RYAN DOESN’T LIE
In the days leading up to the game, Ryan confessed to being outcoached back in December. One of those problems likely lay with the fact that the New York secondary, when playing man coverage, did not have the ability to paper over some of the bad matchups they faced. So on Sunday, the Jets made the switch to more zone coverage, and it was one of the main reasons they were able to have the success that they did against Brady.
“I don’t think we were surprised by anything. I thought they could certainly zone us off more [and] they did. I thought at times we handled it well, and at times we didn’t,” Brady said. “I think they played a lot more coverage today – probably similar to what they did last week. They mixed it up quite a bit. … They certainly have a lot of calls. I think it was a good plan by them and you’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
That coverage made it harder for Brady to deliver the football, and the quarterback certainly held on to it longer than he usually does in hopes of finding a target. As a result, the Jets were able to get good, sustained pressure on Brady for much of the night. New York came away with five sacks — including two from Shaun Ellis — and seven quarterback hits. It was the most sacks the Patriots took all year.
“He looked a little confused,” said cornerback Darrelle Revis of Brady. “We have seen him before. We saw it in the first game when we played him. In the second game he seemed more focused. This game he was a little confused out there.”
IF THERE WAS SOME WAY THAT THE PATRIOTS HAD COME BACK TO WIN, THE PLAY OF ALGE CRUMPLER WOULD BE A BIG STORY
With the continued emergence of the rookie tight ends, Alge Crumpler took a secondary role in the passing game for much of the regular season. (As the season continued, he remained a force as a blocker in the running game.) However, he was at the center of a number of important plays early on Sunday against the Jets.
On Brady’s interception, he was the one who chased down Harris and tackled him at the New England 12-yard line, making a play that looked more than a little like the pay Ben Watson made on Champ Bailey in New England’s 2005 playoff loss to the Broncos in Denver. Crumpler’s hustle was rewarded when the Patriots’ defense was able to hold the Jets’ offense to a field goal attempt, and the play looked even more impressive when Nick Folk’s 30-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
The veteran tight end hasn’t exactly been an offensive force all season, but he was able to shake free on a few occasions on Sunday against the Jets, coming away with three catches for 39 yards, including an impressive 28-yarder down the seam in the first quarter, a play that ended with him delivering an awesome stiff-arm to Cromartie to pick up a couple of extra yards. However, he dropped a ball in the end zone later on that same drive, a series that saw the Patriots settle for a 34-yard field goal from Shayne Graham with 1:15 left in the first quarter to give the Patriots their only lead of the day, 3-0.
“Alge Crumpler — [he] looked like a lineman, but Alge played well,” Ryan said. “The big guy can still get it done.”
It was a tremendous year for Crumpler, who ended his first season with the Patriots with six catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns, but was a thunderous blocker and terrific mentor to many of the younger offensive players, particularly the rookie tight ends. Crumpler, who was praised on several occasions as a positive locker room presence and true professional by both Belichick and Brady, is 33, but it would be very surprising if he wasn’t back with the Patriots for another season.
“It is tough. Your emotions are going to be at one extreme — you’re either going to be really happy or really sad, and I hate that we all have to feel this way,” said Crumpler, who is signed through 2011. “All I care about is what happened in the last three hours, and it wasn’t good. And I’ve got to deal with it.”
NO ONE IS QUITE SURE WHAT HAPPENED ON THAT FOURTH-QUARTER SEQUENCE INVOLVING NEW ENGLAND’S SLOWDOWN ON OFFENSE
With 12:55 remaining in regulation and the Patriots trailing 21-11, New England got the ball at its own 18-yard line. But there was no sense of urgency from the Patriots, who went with the run on six of the first nine plays on a series that ended with them turning the ball over on downs with 5:19 remaining. With the crowd pleading for the Patriots to step on the gas, instead, they went into what appeared to be some sort of slowdown offense.
The whole thing looked very similar to Donovan McNabb and the Eagles in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX — lethargic and a little listless. The situation dictated speed and efficiency and big chunks of yardage. Instead, they didn’t have a single play of more than nine yards and frequently struggled to get plays off until there were single digits left on the play clock.
“It was a two-score game. We’re trying to get the ball down and get it in position,” Belichick said. “They were playing a lot of DB pass coverages and all of that, and we thought we had some good opportunities to run it. Some worked out and some we could have handled better.”
“Well, we thought if we can get in the end zone it’s a three-point game,” Brady said. “I think there were probably four minutes left when we ended up kicking that field goal. If we had scored a touchdown with four minutes left [then], we’re down three with four minutes left. We thought we had an opportunity there, but ended up kicking a field goal. We didn’t really execute the way we needed to [in order] to finish that drive and then we just couldn’t get the ball in the end zone when we needed to.”
New England would get the ball back and put some more points on the board with a field goal and touchdown pass from Brady to Branch with 30 seconds left in the game, but the lack of urgency with the season on the line was alarming at best and negligent at worse.
“Everything was good. I think the coaches were doing the right thing. We were making sure we were calling the right plays. Coaches were putting us in the best position to make plays. And we did that,” said Branch when asked about the situation. “They did a great job. It was a great game plan. And we had a great one. We just didn’t execute the plays.”
“I didn’t really realize that it was anything different than we have [done] in the past,” said left tackle Matt Light. “You still have to communicate and do what you do. In a mode like that where it’s pretty much desperation, it was all about getting your best plays out there — hopefully let the situation run itself. But it didn’t work out for us.”
AFTER A SOLID START TO THE YEAR, THE PATRIOTS’ SPECIAL TEAMS CRASHED AND BURNED ON SUNDAY
On Sunday, it was a miserable performance from many facets of New England’s special teams unit that contributed to the win. It began on kick coverage, where the Jets’ average starting field position was their own 45-yard line. Shayne Graham connected on his two field goal opportunities, but failed to record a touchback. And Zoltan Mesko had a nice per punt average (47 yards on four punts), but didn’t land one inside the 20.
But the unquestioned low point of the afternoon came just before the half when the Patriots attempted a fake punt. With just over a minute remaining in the half and New England trailing 7-3, the Patriots were punting from their own 38-yard line, but decided to try and run a fake. Mesko told NESN.com, it was Pat Chung — who was playing the role of punt protector — who made the call. Long snapper Matt Katula and Chung couldn’t connect, the ball slipped out of Chung’s hands and the Patriots gave it up on downs. Four plays later, Sanchez found Edwards for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 39 seconds left in the first half to make it 14-3.
“We just made a bad mistake on the play,” Belichick said.
According to Ryan, the Jets knew something was up.
“We played it great,” Ryan said of the fake punt play. “You’ve got to give a tin of credit — Eric Smith played a whale of a game for us. [He] just continues to make plays. [Special teams coach] Mike Westhoff alerted our guys on the sideline, as far as anybody knows, for that fake punt, and we just did a great job with that.”
THAT TAKEAWAY MAGIC CAN ONLY LAST SO LONG
The Patriots were able to parlay a plus-28 in the takeaway department to some big wins over the course of the 2010 season, but on Sunday against the Jets, they came up with a goose egg in the takeaway department. Making things worse was the fact that Brady threw his first interception since Oct. 17, a floater that was hauled in by Jets linebacker David Harris.
The pick — which snapped Brady’s streak of pass attempts without an interception at a record-setting 339 — took place with 8:04 left in the first quarter. With the Patriots facing a first-and-10 at the New York 28-yard line, Brady attempted a screen pass for running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis when he saw linebacker Calvin Pace flash in front of him.
“I tried to throw it over the top of him and down to Benny, and I threw it over both of them,” Brady said. “Not probably the safest play in the playbook. That’s not really the way you draw them up.”
“[Fortunately], Brady overthrew his back,” Harris said, “and I was in the right place at the right time.”
On the other side of the ball, Sanchez was a bit wobbly for much of the afternoon, delivering more than a few overthrows. But the Patriots were never able to get anywhere near an interception, rare for a guy who had thrown seven in his two previous games in Foxboro. In the end, Sanchez’s line wasn’t extraordinary — he was 16-for-25 for 194 yards and three touchdowns — but he stayed away from turnovers and gave his team a chance to win.
“We had a great offensive plan,” said Sanchez, who picked up his first career win in Foxboro. “It all kind of came to fruition tonight. So, I was proud of our effort, and the offensive line did a heck of a job. It’s a lot easier when you have that kind of time and that kind of protection, so I was proud of our guys.”
DEION BRANCH AND SOME OF THE JETS WON’T BE EXCHANGING CHRISTMAS CARDS
It was a forgettable end to an otherwise memorable season for the Patriots’ wide receiver. Dealt to New England in the wake of the Randy Moss trade, Branch saw his career reborn in New England, finishing the regular season with 48 catches for 706 yards and five touchdowns after being reunited with Brady. He brought some stability to the Patriots offense, and created nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators throughout the season.
But he was completely shut down by the Jets on Sunday. Facing a steady diet of Revis, Branch was rendered a non-factor. He had five catches for 59 yards, all of them in the second half, as well as a late touchdown that made it a one-score game with a minute to go. After the game, he ripped some of the Jets for what he called “classless” postgame celebrations. Branch would not single out any individuals, but several Jets players were seen giving the finger to fans on the way off the field after the 28-21 win by New York.
“There was a lot of classless play on the football field after the game. But you have to expect that from some of the guys over there,” Branch said. “Some of the guys … that was the only thing that was embarrassing. I think right now, there’s just a lot of frustration.
“I’m a champion. I’ll always congratulate the guys upon victory. They beat us today. They beat us when it mattered. So the ones with class, I shook their hands. The other ones, I didn’t. They don’t deserve my nor my teammates congratulations for them to act like that. You can tell they’re not used to being in this position for guys to act that way — for some of the guys. You can tell some of the guys who have been in this position before, they act differently than the ones who haven’t been there. But I don’t have any excuses. They beat us. That’s all right.”
MATT LIGHT AND FRED TAYLOR ARE TWO PLAYERS WHO ARE TAKING A LONG LOOK AT THEIR FUTURE
Light, Taylor, Kevin Faulk, Jarrad Page, Sammy Morris, Gerard Warren, Logan Mankins, Quinn Ojinnaka, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Matt Katula, Shayne Graham, Kyle Arrington, Ryan Wendell and Tracy White all have contracts that expire at the end of the 2010 season. Regardless of what happens with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Patriots will have to make some important decisions on some veteran players.
Two of those players — Light and Taylor — talked about what the future might hold for them after the game. Light, a second-round pick in the 2001 draft out of Purdue, is one of the last remaining links to Super Bowl XXXVI. While he remains a lightning rod because he faces so many talented speed rushers on a near-weekly basis, he is one of the more respected players in the locker room.
“I have had a great 10 years here,” said the 32-year-old Light. “This has been a great organization, obviously a great place to come play as a rookie. Ten really solid years, and I hope like hell to be here and continue to do what I have done. But we will have to wait and see if that works itself out.”
Taylor is as well-respected as Light, but if Sunday was his final game with the Patriots, it was a bittersweet ending: the 13-year veteran who will turn 35 later this month has struggled with injury over his two seasons in New England, was inactive for the game against the Jets. Speaking slowly and softly, he acknowledged after the game that this could be not only the end of his Patriots’ career, but his career as an NFL running back.
“I don’t know,” said Taylor. “I think right now at this point, I’ve got a million things running through my brain. It’s kind of hard to comprehend — none of it is really clear. But I just have to take some time and be realistic. I kind of know what my body is telling me and what my family has been telling me. But I also know this is what I’ve been programmed to do, the majority of my life. So I’ll probably just take some time and get to training this offseason … being around the guys it’s just hard to separate from that. So I don’t want to be too fast on the trigger.”