FOXBOROUGH -- As cameras gathered around Troy Brown in the somber Patriots locker room yesterday, the 14-year veteran was offered an olive branch. His team had been thumped by the visiting Jets, 17-14, and it was suggested to Brown that perhaps the result was more because of the Patriots’ lack of execution than anything else.
No way, Brown shot back.
“You can’t say that,” he said. “The guys over there played their butts off. They sacked us, they knocked balls down, got turnovers, ran back kicks. So they just beat us. Beat us in every aspect of the game, especially in the crucial situations - third down, penalties, whatever it may be.”
The turn of events was stunning in that it’s usually the Patriots who deliver such sound beatings. The decision ended the team’s streak of regular-season games without back-to-back losses at 57, three shy of tying the league record. It also snapped the Jets’ seven-game losing streak against New England. But perhaps more importantly, it thrust the Jets (5-4) back into the AFC East race, just one game behind the Patriots (6-3).
“At the end of the day, we kept ourselves alive in the division race - we lose and it was over,” said Jets linebacker Matt Chatham, the former Patriot. “We were all aware of that.”
Instead, the race is on. And at the same time the Patriots have arrived at a low point in their season, coming off back-to-back losses at home in which the offense - which had looked like a well-oiled machine against the Vikings Oct. 30 - has been stuck in neutral.
Tight end Daniel Graham, for one, said yesterday’s game is the type that will force the team to look deeply at itself.
”We have to see what we’re going to do the rest of the season,” said Graham, who returned after missing the last four games. “We play like this, this is what the results are going to be like the rest of the season. I think we know that if we execute and do our job, that we can be a team to be reckoned with. But if we come out and play like we did, it’s going to be a long second half of the season.”
It was a long 60 minutes for the Patriots yesterday at rain-soaked, muddy Gillette Stadium, with the team’s former defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, scoring his first career victory over Bill Belichick. The Jets strung together scoring drives of 16 and 15 plays, slicing up a shorthanded Patriots defense that was suddenly vulnerable against the run and the short pass.
Outside linebacker Mike Vrabel lamented the fact that the Patriots - who were without starting safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson and starting end Ty Warren - couldn’t counter the Jets’ plan, which seemed tailored to the sloppy field conditions.
”I don’t think we played smart,” he said. “I think once we see and realize what they’re doing early in the game - with the weather conditions and the field - everybody needs to make adjustments, coaches and players. I think you look at it and you have to do certain things, you have to run inside. They were throwing a lot of things inside and short.”
Meanwhile, the Jets’ defense unleashed pressure against quarterback Tom Brady, sacking him four times and keeping him out of rhythm. Brady finished 25 of 37 for 255 yards, with one touchdown and one costly interception that led to the Jets’ final touchdown in the fourth quarter.
”We knew they had a lot of blitzes, it’s pretty much the same defense as our team,” offensive guard Logan Mankins said. “But I think they brought a little more than we expected.”
The tone was set in the first half, when the Jets opened a 7-6 lead. The Patriots twice had driven inside the Jets’ 5-yard line, only to settle for Stephen Gostkowski field goals, from 31 and 21 yards.
The Jets had the most decisive drive of the opening half, marching 16 plays and covering 81 yards in the second quarter. The march chewed up 9:12, included four third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion, and culminated in a Kevan Barlow 2-yard touchdown run.
”That was an important element of the game - to move the ball down, have good long scoring drives, and not give [Brady] more opportunities than he needed to get,” said Mangini, whose team was an impressive 6 of 13 on third down.
But even when Brady had them in the second half, the offense sputtered as it struggled to string together any consistent production between the running and passing games. A big part of the problem was protection up front, as the Jets were in Brady’s face throughout. The Patriots were just 3 of 12 on third down.
Meanwhile, the Jets continued to have success moving the ball, opening a 10-6 lead on a 34-yard Mike Nugent field goal with 1:46 left in the third quarter. The Patriots’ ensuing drive advanced to the Jets’ 32 but ended on back-to-back sacks of Brady.
Then, at 6:47 of the fourth quarter, the pressure led Brady to throw a pass behind rookie running back Laurence Maroney at the Patriots’ 38, and Jets safety Erik Coleman came up with an interception. Four plays later, quarterback Chad Pennington (22 of 33 for 168 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) connected with receiver Jerricho Cotchery on a 22-yard touchdown in the righthand corner of the end zone, making it 17-6. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs was in position to make the play, but in a reflection of the way the game went, Cotchery made a more aggressive effort for the ball.
The Patriots countered with a 31-second scoring drive, with Brady finding Reche Caldwell for a 15-yard score with 4:14 left, but the Jets killed enough of the clock on their next drive, leaving the Patriots 1:08 to drive down the field with no timeouts. Fittingly, the game ended on a sack.
Afterward, the moods in the two locker rooms were as different as one would expect.
”Eric tried his best to keep the [Patriots] organization out of it, but at the end of the day, you could see the sparkle in his eye,” Chatham said. “You could see what it meant to him.”
Meanwhile, the Patriots began their search for answers.
”We’re 6-3, wherever that puts us in the pack, that’s where we are - in the middle of the pack somewhere, at the back of the best teams, the top of the worst teams,” Brown said. “We’ve lost two games in a row. We’re not going too good right now.”