EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The message Willie McGinest and other Patriots received from the coaches was simple enough - win the game and you earn a bye week. It wasn’t exactly something they needed to be hit over the head with, but they knew it was there for the taking.
“All week long the coaches told us, `This is what you’ve played all season for,’ and they were right,” said McGinest. “We prepared well all week. We put last week behind us and we went out and did what we’re capable of as a team. We put together three phases of the game and we beat a good team, a divisional rival, on their turf.”
After yesterday’s 23-7 shellacking of the Jets, coach Bill Belichick decided that talk of bye weeks was the old message, and any discussion now should be eliminated from the players’ vocabulary. There was now the goal for the last week of the 2004 season, a chance to match last season’s 14-2 mark by beating San Francisco at Gillette Stadium next Sunday.
“It’s significant because we haven’t had a week off since early in the season,” said wide receiver/defensive back Troy Brown. “It’s always important to achieve these goals along the way. We got one today. We responded to what we needed to do.”
And the Jets sure didn’t.
The Jets have been answering questions all season by members of the New York media about their problem beating elite teams. The questioning usually gets a surly reaction from the players.
A couple of weeks back, when asked about beating “soft” teams, New York center Kevin Mawae said, “San Diego is 9-3. We beat them on the road. San Diego is not a good team right now? Are they a good team right now? They are a playoff contender. We beat a playoff contender on the road. We’re 9-3. Put that in your [notebook]. Ridiculous.”
Then Chad Pennington chastised the media last week because they kept writing he can’t beat a good team. The Patriots’ dominance yesterday, meaning the Jets missed a chance to clinch a wild-card berth, didn’t make Pennington and Mawae’s cases look very strong.
Besides an effective job by the Patriots’ front seven, Tom Brady rebounded marvelously from a four-interception performance against the Dolphins in Miami, taking the 77,975 fans at the Meadowlands out of the game early on a frigid day.
Brady tossed two touchdowns and threw for 264 yards with no interceptions in an impressive road performance.
The only hostility from the fans was directed at their own players (the Jets were booed off the field at halftime) and the play-calling of offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. Also drawing jeers was Pennington, who threw two interceptions and fumbled, which led to Patriots scores. Pennington had 252 yards passing, but 147 came after the score was 23-0.
“[The Patriots] just came down here, and as I told our football team, they flat-out kicked our behinds - on offense, defense, and special teams,” said Jets coach Herman Edwards. “That is how it all boils down. We knew what was at stake. We needed to win a game at home to get back into the playoffs and we didn’t do it.”
The opposite was true of Belichick’s 11. The coach had his team well-prepared. There would be no references about offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’s head being at Notre Dame, where he recently was named the coach. There was no talk of a Brady slump, or poor play by the secondary, even though Ty Law was a pregame scratch when it appeared he had had a chance to play. The defense held Curtis Martin, the league’s leading rusher entering the game, to 33 yards on 13 carries.
With 29 carries for 89 yards, Corey Dillon broke the Patriots’ season rushing record, held by Martin, and three field goals by Adam Vinatieri gave him a personal high for points in a season. The Patriots controlled every aspect of the game, including time of possession, 35:48 to 24:12.
On a day that the Jets retired Joe Klecko’s No. 73, the Jets had one of their darkest moments of the season, while the Patriots rebounded.
It was hard to pinpoint exactly where the teams parted ways yesterday, but the second quarter was a good place to start. Vinatieri kicked a 28-yard field goal with 7:47 remaining in the second through a tough crosswind.
But even before that, Tedy Bruschi seemed to take the life out of the Jets on the first series when it appeared New York was going to march downfield for an opening-drive score. Bruschi intercepted Pennington’s weak throw, intended for Santana Moss at the Patriots’ 26, and returned it 36 yards to the Jets’ 38. Even though the Patriots didn’t take advantage, the damage it had done was clear. It became a game of field position, and then the Patriots took it away.
“They drove the ball on us a little bit and we were able to switch the field position with the interception,” Bruschi said. “Willie made a key third-down stop for us, and we made them punt. Our offense took a little time to get going, but they did.”
The absence of injured John Abraham took away some of the Jets’ ability to chase Brady and allowed the quarterback to get comfortable in his surroundings. The Patriots’ drive to the field goal took 7:18, with a good dose of Dillon and a 10-yard run by Patrick Pass mixed in. With 6:02 remaining in the second, the Patriots began their first touchdown drive. A huge play was Brady finding David Givens for a 35-yard catch to the Jets’ 17. Givens had been out of the offensive mix for a few weeks, but was very much part of things yesterday.
Two plays later, Brady found a wide-open Daniel Graham over the middle in the end zone for a 10-0 Patriots lead.
The Patriots got 3 more on Vinatieri’s 29-yard field goal with 7 seconds remaining in the half, getting it back with 1:13 remaining and moving 32 yards. Brady connected with Deion Branch on a 21-yard pass to put New England in good position at the Jets’ 11 after Brown had made a 23-yard punt return to the Jets’ 43.
“That was huge, because we got good field position and were able to make it a two-touchdown game pretty much,” Brown said.
When the Patriots recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, which had been hit into the ground by Vinatieri, the kicker attempted a 50-yarder. But although it had the distance, the wind carried it wide left.
Another Vinatieri field goal after a 79-yard drive in the third quarter, which ate up more than seven minutes, added to the Jets’ misery. The final calamity for the Jets came when Pennington was intercepted by Eugene Wilson at the Jets’ 39 seconds into the fourth quarter. Wilson returned it to the 15, and four plays later the Patriots put even more distance between them and the Jets with a 6-yard scoring toss from Brady to Branch.
“We don’t focus on wins too much and we don’t focus on losses too much,” Bruschi said. “We try to put it behind us as quickly as we can and move on. Maybe it was good that it was a Monday night game and we didn’t have time to dwell on it.”
Nor can they dwell on the bye they had just earned.