EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- To prevent an ugly scene from developing, they decided not to serve alcohol to the fans at the Meadowlands last night.
So they served them the New York Jets instead?
Or, more accurately, the Patriots served the Jets, pounding their AFC East rivals, 31-21, in the final “Monday Night Football” game on ABC.
There may not have been much of the country tuned in by the time Doug Flutie relieved Tom Brady for the final five minutes of garbage time. Only a handful of Jets faithful were around for the sobering defeat, which was the ninth in 10 games for New York (3-12), a playoff team a year ago.
Meanwhile, New England (10-5) continues its fine stretch of play, having put together a season-long four-game winning streak with the 15th win in its last 16 divisional games, and sixth straight defeat of the Jets.
The Patriots will finish the regular season at home against Miami Sunday, then host a playoff game the following weekend at Gillette Stadium.
Brady wasn’t particularly sharp, but he did move past the 4,000-yard mark for the season, becoming the second Patriots quarterback to do so. Drew Bledsoe threw for a team-record 4,555 yards in 1994.
Brady completed 18 of 29 passes for a season-low 185 yards, with two touchdowns and an interception. His night was significantly better than that of counterpart Brooks Bollinger, who was 11 of 19 for 100 yards, suffering four sacks and throwing an interception.
The Patriots had their fourth straight dominant defensive outing, holding the Jets to 171 yards. In December, New England did not allow an opponent to gain 200 yards in a game.
The Patriots had little difficulty moving the ball or finding the end zone, as they won for the sixth time in their last seven games.
The Jets’ initial first down came with five minutes remaining in the third quarter, and that was via a penalty for roughing the passer when Richard Seymour had helmet-to-helmet contact with Bollinger on a sack.
After finally giving the chain workers something to do, the Jets moved into Patriots territory for the first time on offense. Laveranues Coles beat Artrell Hawkins on a fade route from 11 yards out for the Jets’ first offensive score with 13:52 left in the game.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel, in what could hardly be described as a surprise move, caught two short-yardage touchdown passes in the first half, as New England opened a 21-7 lead at the break.
Vrabel now has three touchdown receptions this season, tying him for second on the squad and putting him just one scoring catch behind team leader Deion Branch. He has eight career receiving touchdowns, including two in Super Bowls.
If that wasn’t humiliating enough, the Jets totaled only 28 yards and didn’t register a first down in the first half, posting four three-and-outs and turning the ball over on the first play of another possession. Thus, in the first two quarters, the Jets possessed the ball for a scant 6 minutes 26 seconds.
Things were so bad that the Jets fell asleep on a kickoff after Corey Dillon scored on a 1-yard run just before the intermission.
With the wind blowing debris around the stadium, the Patriots had a holder to keep the ball on the tee for Adam Vinatieri.
Vinatieri popped a kick high into the air to help prevent a long return (the Jets had a 39-yard return in the first quarter). The Jets didn’t seem to notice, though. The ball hit the ground, bounced off David Barrett, and was recovered by James Sanders at the Jets’ 35. The Patriots didn’t score in the final seconds of the half, but they didn’t need to.
The Patriots held a decisive advantage in virtually every category at the end of the half: 16-0 in first downs, 186-28 in total offense, 23:34-6:26 in time of possession.
Bollinger completed only 3 of 7 passes for 17 yards and went to the locker room with an embarrassing 10.7 passer rating.
The Patriots stopped the Jets in short order after the opening kickoff, and promptly drove 67 yards in 13 plays to the first touchdown of the game.
It was a straightforward drive, featuring the power running of Dillon, who carried six times in the march, including the first four plays. An obvious goal for the Patriots was to get the running game in gear, and they set out to do that from the beginning, starting tackle Tom Ashworth at tight end along with Christian Fauria and Benjamin Watson.
Vrabel did the honors for the points with a 1-yard grab in the back of the end zone.
Seconds later, the Patriots appeared ready to take control of the game, as Asante Samuel picked off Bollinger and returned the ball 15 yards to the Jets’ 34.
Samuel went down to the turf, writhing in pain. He released the ball after going down, and the officials originally ruled that he had fumbled, but the Patriots challenged the play and the call was overturned.
It was announced in the press box that Samuel just had the wind knocked out of him and that his return to the game was questionable.
The Patriots didn’t take advantage of the turnover, as on the first play after the interception, Ty Law returned the favor to his former team.
Law’s interception was a score-changer, however, as he stepped in front of David Givens, snatched an off-target Brady offering, and raced 74 yards for a touchdown.
It was a career-long interception return for Law, who had 36 picks in 10 seasons with the Patriots. His 583 yards in returns is a New England franchise record, as is the number of interceptions. Law has seven interceptions this season.
Law’s play brought some life to the Jets, who closed on Dillon the next two plays, dropping him for a 3-yard loss and stopping him after a 1-yard pickup. Brady’s overthrow of Branch on third down gave the Jets a much needed three-and-out.
It merely delayed the dominance.