EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Even in victory, the faces of the Patriots’ coaches often are stoic and stern. That’s a sign of them rarely being satisfied, and never wanting to let their players know when they are satisfied.
But yesterday they allowed themselves to show a little emotion.
The assistant coaches in the booth adjoining the press box were applauding and screaming after every good play down the stretch. Head man Bill Belichick was hugging players, giving high-fives and slaps on the back.
“He hugged me on the field,” said Patriots outside linebacker Roman Phifer following New England’s 17-16, come-from-behind win over the Jets. “I’d never got one of those from him before.”
It is Belichick (and director of player personnel Scott Pioli’s) collection of nomads - Phifer, Bryan Cox, Terrell Buckley, Antowain Smith, Marc Edwards, etc. - who have made the Patriots better.
The team listened intently to Belichick’s halftime speech, in which he said, “Our season is on the line. Either we get it done the last 30 minutes, or we’re looking down the barrel of the New York Jets.” They responded with a huge win, and they did it patiently.
Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis began making the most of a short-to-intermediate passing game, which ultimately opened big gainers to Smith and former XFL-er Fred Coleman.
With a 7-5 record, the Patriots are right in the mix in the AFC playoff chase. In the AFC East, they trail the Dolphins (8-3) by 1 1/2 games and the Jets (7-4) by a half-game. If the season ended now, they’d be in the playoffs.
“We discussed all week that we control our own destiny,” said safety Lawyer Milloy. “We saw that most of the teams we had on the schedule were around or at our record, and that if we beat them we could go to the playoffs.”
“I don’t want to talk about last year,” said defensive end Bobby Hamilton, “but if they had gotten the lead against us last year, we’d have given up. We have a bunch of fighters out there. We feel we can do anything if we put our mind to it.”
What looked hopeless at halftime really wasn’t. The Jets scored on their first possession, and then twice had to settle for field goals when touchdowns might have put it out of reach.
“It was a tale of two halves,” said linebacker Cox, who played in his first game since breaking his right fibula in two places against the Broncos Oct. 28. “They controlled the first half, and we controlled the second half.”
When exactly did the Patriots win this game? Was it Buckley’s interception with 2:07 remaining at the Patriots’ 33, foiling Vinny Testaverde’s final drive? Was it Tom Brady’s 2-yard run on third and 2 with 1:46 remaining to seal it for good? Was it Coleman’s catch on a slant with 11:13 remaining in the third that went for 46 yards and set the stage for Smith’s 4-yard run, trimming the Jets’ lead to 13-7? Was it Mike Vrabel’s third-quarter interception at the Patriots’ 31 that came before those two plays?
Maybe all of the above.
After Adam Vinatieri’s 28-yard field goal put the Patriots in the lead for the first and final time at 6:29 of the fourth quarter, the Jets had plenty of time to win it.
Tebucky Jones, who was terrific on special teams all day, made a nice tackle on kick returner Craig Yeast at the 25. The Jets made a pair of first downs and were at the Patriots’ 45 with 2:54 remaining.
But the New England defense was relentless.
Matt Stevens blitzed on third and 5 and forced Testaverde out of the pocket. He rolled right but was forced to dump the pass. On fourth and 5, the Jets’ last chance, Buckley stepped in front of tight end Anthony Becht and intercepted to end the threat.
“We put an extra guy in on that play,” said Buckley. “You knew they were going to pass. We just had to get our coverage guys in there.”
Brady’s late run was significant because Belichick said the quarterback was in pain from a shot he’d taken in the ribs, and because Brady was somewhat skeptical.
“I asked the coach if he was sure, and Drew [Bledsoe] said, `Just run the ball, get the first down, and win the game,’ “ said Brady.
Brady, who finished 20 for 28 for 213 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, said of his team not scoring in the first half, “We just didn’t move the ball. When we had a chance to extend a drive [they were 1 for 6 converting third downs] we didn’t. It goes to show it’s a 60-minute game, and it’s not over after two quarters.”
With a pair of speed burners at both ends (Santana Moss and Laveranues Coles), the Jets forced the issue in the first quarter. Three of Testaverde’s first four passes went down the field. Testaverde threw for 33 yards to the rookie Moss (his first career catch) over Terrance Shaw, and on third and 6 from the Patriots’ 34, Testaverde drilled one to Coles on a slant for 34 yards and the score as Ty Law and Jones missed him.
After New England went three-and-out, the Jets marched to the Patriots’ 2. But Tedy Bruschi, Milloy, Cox, and Phifer were all over Curtis Martin, stuffing him for no gain. Hall kicked a 19-yard field goal, but at least the Jets didn’t get 6.
Hall hit a 40-yarder in the second quarter when a Jets drive stopped at the Patriots’ 23. A big play by New England’s defense on that drive was Phifer’s hit on Martin for a 3-yard loss.
Trailing, 13-0, the Patriots did not feel they were out of the game.
Vrabel’s interception early in the third came after Brandon Mitchell tipped a pass. After David Patten made a 7-yard catch but was dinged, Coleman entered and hauled in the 46-yard slant.
“It was my first pro catch, and I was just excited that I had the chance to contribute to the win,” said Coleman, who once was cut by the Jets. Two plays later, Smith, who gained only 28 yards on 12 carries, was in the end zone.
The Patriots spotted the Jets another Hall field goal from 50 yards with 6:57 remaining in the third. But on the next possession, the Patriots continued their short passing, and Brady spotted Smith (his last read) and he found 40 yards of open space to the Jets’ 27. Kevin Faulk rattled off runs of 21, 8, and 4 yards, before fullback Marc Edwards banged it in from the 4 with 2:11 left in the third.
It was clear the momentum had shifted, and New England claimed a win against a team it had to beat.
“We approached it like there was no tomorrow,” said Phifer. “And that’s the way we played when it counted.”