FOXBOROUGH - Way up there on the pedestal they sat on for so long, the New England Patriots were packing their horseshoes and rabbit’s feet, four-leaf clovers and genius caps, carefully placing their worst-to-first story in a special place on their bookshelf for a rainy day. The Lombardi Trophy that Bill Belichick brought to practice Saturday and showed his players in the latest desperation motivational ploy now was on its way to an unknown and more deserving destination.
When the Super Bowl champions left their spacious Gillette Stadium locker room late yesterday afternoon, it was following one of their trademark come-from-behind victories, 27-24, in overtime over the hapless Miami Dolphins behind a wounded Tom Brady (undisclosed ailment). When Adam Vinatieri made a 35-yard field goal 2 minutes 3 seconds into OT, the Patriots still had one foot on the pedestal and one in that horrible place they reside in this morning - NFL playoff elimination.
Despite the roar from a tent full of players and their families near the parking lot when the Packers pulled within 14-10 of the Jets in the first half, hopes soon fizzled as the Jets took control and beat the Packers, 42-17. The Patriots had needed Green Bay to win to capture the AFC East, and when the Packers fell, New England was out of the playoffs. The players will clear out their lockers today.
The Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins all finished with 9-7 records, but the Jets won the division based on their record against common opponents (8-4 vs. 7-5), which is the third tiebreaker.
How ironic it was that on the day the Patriots found their hearts and their pride again, when their fans cheered as loudly and passionately as they had any time this season, they would be eliminated by forces not under their control.
They had been so buoyed by Anthony Pleasant’s pregame speech, and so moved by Belichick asking his players not to give up so easily the Lombardi Trophy he had in front of them. But in the end, none of it really mattered.
“It was really disappointing,” said left tackle Matt Light, who watched the Jets game from the Funway Cafe in Foxborough with a few other players. “I think we knew coming in that part of this was out of our control. You’re there rooting for the Packers and it’s just tough they can’t win a game for you, but that’s what happens. We were all upset and frustrated by not getting the help, but then you think we could have showed a lot more emotion and won some games earlier we let slip away.”
Light, who played very well against Jason Taylor, holding the the league’s sack leader (18 1/2) to no sacks, said the season was probably a wake-up call in that, “I think we accomplished a lot of things. We won nine games, but we know that’s not good enough. I think we’re going to be better prepared for dealing with the things we had to deal with as defending a Super Bowl in the future.”
Offensive lineman Damien Woody left the tent with his family when the Packers were still in it, but “by the time I got home, I couldn’t believe all the touchdowns the Jets had scored. I can’t believe Green Bay laid an egg like that. The Packers had so much to play for with home-field advantage. It’s hard to rationalize that we’re out and the Jets are the division champs. If someone had told me that the Jets would win the division and that Cleveland would be in it, I’d say no way.”
“I’m in shock,” added Woody. “I know the Jets are improved, but really, even Miami would be better than New York. In the end, we have to kick ourselves because we had a great opportunity to be in the postseason again if we had just played better in the games leading up to this.”
Belichick wasn’t available for comment after the Jets’ win, but the coach said in a statement, “We’re very disappointed that our season has ended. Unfortunately, it was a situation where other things had to fall into place for us to get into the playoffs and it just didn’t work out. I am proud of our team.”
But as bad as the Patriots felt last night, the Dolphins had to feel worse. Once again, they sang their December swan song, blowing leads on a day when Ricky Williams ran for 185 yards.
“I’ve been through it before and I think all the fans of South Florida have been through it as well, and so that’s really all I can say,” said Miami middle linebacker Zach Thomas.
In the late going, yesterday’s game had all the feel of the Patriots’ amazing run last season.
The Patriots, trailing, 21-10, at the half, came back from a 24-13 deficit with 4:59 remaining in the fourth quarter. They scored on a 68-yard drive, aided by a 30-yard interference call on Miami’s Jamar Fletcher when he got himself tangled with David Givens at the 3. Could the ruling have gone either way? Perhaps, but the Patriots got the call and Brady found Troy Brown with a 3-yard touchdown pass, pulling the Patriots within 24-19. The Patriots elected to go for 2 and succeeded as Brady found a wide-open Christian Fauria in the corner of the end zone with 2:46 remaining in the fourth. New England was within 24-21.
One could sense it all slipping away from the Dolphins. It could be said the coaching staff had a brain cramp; Williams, who gained 185 yards on 31 carries and 6 yards per carry, was somehow a sideshow at the end of the game as the Dolphins threw the ball in horrible field position.
“They were stacking eight men in the box,” said Miami quarterback Jay Fiedler. “They were one-on-one with our outside receivers.”
The Patriots faked an onside kick and kicked it deep and the Dolphins were about as ready for it as snow in Hawaii. Travis Minor first looked at the rolling ball, and then handled it like a grenade. He was tackled at the 4. Two errant passes and a Fiedler 7-yard scamper forced Mark Royals to punt from his end zone. He booted it against the wind to the Dolphins’ 24, and the Patriots got Vinatieri’s tying 43-yard field goal with 1:09 remaining.
The Patriots’ defense didn’t allow the Dolphins to breathe on their next possession, and that brought on OT.
The Patriots won the toss, which was bad enough for the Dolphins. But as shocking as it was for the Patriots to watch Brown fumble a punt against the Jets last week, it was just as incredible that Olindo Mare, one of the best kickers in the game, nailed the OT kickoff out of bounds.
The Patriots took over at their 40, and the winning drive featured a 15-yard run on a direct snap to Kevin Faulk and a 20-yard sideline throw from Brady to Faulk to the Dolphins’ 25 over linebacker Derrick Rodgers. The play was reviewed, but the replay showed Faulk caught the ball and kept both feet inbounds.
“I thought we had some good coverage,” said Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt, “Faulk just made a great play.”
The Patriots got the ball down to the 17 and Vinatieri made the 35-yarder 2:03 into OT to win it. They remained on the pedestal for a moment, but dropped into NFL oblivion three hours later.