EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Border Wars dominated by the New York Jets the past three years have started anew, but the tone and the outcome remain the same.
In a chaotic finish to a game the Patriots appeared to have won, the Jets scored two touchdowns in less than five minutes to take a 20-19 victory last night, ruining Bill Belichick’s return to the Meadowlands and rendering the Patriots 0-2 under him.
“Everybody is disappointed in the results,” said Belichick. “We have to make the plays. The Jets made great throws at the end of the game. It’s a division game, a tough one to lose.”
This was a defensive struggle that turned into an offensive war of wills late in the game. The Jets took the lead with 1:55 left, thanks to two long pass plays. Vinny Testaverde hit Dedric Ward with a 44-yarder over Ty Law to the 28, and one play later, Wayne Chrebet made an acrobatic catch over Antonio Langham at the 2-yard line and twisted into the end zone.
“I had my fingertips on the ball, but not enough to knock it out of his hands,” said Langham. “We have to make those plays. We have to finish off games. We can’t play 55 minutes and expect to win. Not against a team like that.”
“I take complete responsibility for the loss,” said Law. “I’ve got to make those plays. I’ve got to cover my man better late in the game like that. I didn’t do a good job. Our secondary didn’t do the job when we needed to make plays.”
The Jets tried a 2-point conversion (twice, with a penalty), but failed, leaving the margin at 1. But the Patriots were unable to move the ball in the final 1:48 as Drew Bledsoe was sacked twice and threw two incompletions.
In the end, the Patriots’ downfall was their inability to get the ball over the goal line. They were in the Red Zone six times but settled for field goals four times. A missed 29-yard attempt by Adam Vinatieri in the third quarter proved costly.
The Patriots took what appeared to be a commanding 19-7 lead with 9:56 remaining in the game on their only touchdown, a 6-yard pass from Bledsoe to tight end Eric Bjornson. But they then elected to go into a prevent defense, and the Jets marched 85 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown. Testaverde hit Chrebet with a 2-yard scoring pass, making it a 19-14 game with 6:25 remaining. On the drive, running back Richie Anderson caught five passes for 78 yards.
From there came the true test. Could the Patriots run out the clock?
They got a huge boost when Ray Mickens committed pass interference on Tony Simmons on third and 7 from the New England 23, moving the ball to the 47. But on the next third down, Bledsoe threw to Simmons on the sideline and the receiver went out of bounds a yard short of the first down. On fourth down, Bledsoe ran a quarterback sneak for a 2-yard gain and a first down with 3:52 remaining. The game should have been over right then and there.
“Our offense wasn’t able to make plays when it had to,” said Bledsoe, who went 25 of 43 for 229 yards and was sacked six times, making it a dozen for the season.
The war had its casualties, too, as the Patriots may have lost Larry Whigham for the season with a tear in the medial collateral ligament of his right knee. Offensive tackle Greg Robinson-Randall suffered an arm injury and center Damien Woody suffered a neck injury late in the game and left the Meadowlands wearing a collar.
The Patriots defense looked strong at the outset, stopping the Jets on three plays on the first series, and all you needed to know about the New England offense in the first half was two names: Troy Brown and Adam Vinatieri.
Brown returned Tom Tupa’s first punt 31 yards to the Jets’ 44, setting the stage for one of four first-half field goals by Vinatieri.
A key play in the first drive was Bledsoe throwing a sideline pass on which Terry Glenn was unable to keep both feet inbounds. A tight end screen, on which Bledsoe threw across the field with pressure, resulted in a 1-yard loss and set the stage for a 32-yard field goal with 9:51 remaining in the first quarter. It was Vinatieri’s 12th straight successful conversion against the Jets.
The Patriots defense also lapsed into the same kind of problems it had in the opener against Tampa Bay, specifically third-down woes. The Jets converted three times in a 12-play, 74-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter. With 3:48 remaining, Testaverde pulled off a beautiful play-fake, tossing a 4-yard scoring strike to tight end Fred Baxter to put the Jets up, 7-3.
During the drive, Testaverde completed a 25-yard sideline fade to Ward over Law to midfield. Later, on third and 8 from the Patriots’ 48, Testaverde found Vincent Brisby down the middle for an 18-yard gain over Otis Smith.
The Jets moved the ball on the ground, too, with Curtis Martin accounting for 20 yards on three carries before Anderson’s 6-yard jaunt put the ball at the 4, setting up the go-ahead score.
The Patriots had to settle for a second Vinatieri field goal, from 35 yards, with 12:23 remaining in the half after they couldn’t hit paydirt from inside the 20.
They started this drive from their 20. Kevin Faulk busted an 11-yard run over right tackle and Bledsoe connected on passes of 10 and 6 yards to Glenn before Brown picked up 20 on a swing pass in the flat. The Patriots got as close as the 18 before having to settle for another 3 points.
Trailing, 7-6, the Patriots got a superb play from Langham, who picked off a Testaverde pass on the right sideline and returned it to the Jets’ 14. It seemed like an easy 7 points, but the Patriots managed only 2 yards, those being J.R. Redmond’s first 2 NFL yards from scrimmage. Bledsoe then threw two incompletions, bringing on Vinatieri for a 30-yard field goal that gave the Patriots a 9-7 lead with 11:13 left in the half.
Vinatieri made it four in a row with 2:45 remaining in the half soon after Brown returned a punt 38 yards to the Jets’ 34. The Patriots made one first down, to the 23, on a Bledsoe-to-Faulk 6-yard pass, and Bledsoe tucked the ball in and ran for 7 yards on third and 10 with protection breaking down. It was Adam Time, and he gave the Patriots a 12-7 lead.