FOXBOROUGH -- Linebacker Tedy Bruschi called it a chess match, one of the most mentally taxing games he’s been a part of over his 11-year career.
Not to say there weren’t hard hits, or that physical play wasn’t on display, but when the Patriots and Jets clashed yesterday in the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs it was very much a thinking man’s game.
The sides both wrestled to establish the tempo, making it hard for the other to substitute players. The Patriots opened the game with the no-huddle offense, snapping the ball at a rapid-fire pace. The Jets countered with their own no-huddle attack, with seemingly endless shifting and motion. Substitutions were made quickly. Timeouts were burned. Unconventional defensive schemes were utilized.
Such an approach was to be expected considering that both coaches - the Patriots’ Bill Belichick and the Jets’ Eric Mangini - know each other so well. And in the end, the Patriots called checkmate with a 37-16 victory that was closer than the score indicated.
As is the case in most chess matches, Bruschi said the key was to never lose their edge - especially mentally.
"You saw the offensive line out there during a punt formation, and we had to run our defense on, then run our defense off, then run them back on. We got them with 12 men on the field once, and I think they got us with 12 men on the field. They had a lot of shifts and motions. You saw timeouts being called," he said.
"I think what we had to do was stay calm and let them do all their shifts and motioning, and trust our preparation to make the proper adjustment."
The Patriots made them, and ultimately made more plays to put away the pesky Jets and record their ninth straight playoff victory at home. The result catapults the team into the AFC divisional round, where the top-seeded Chargers await next Sunday in San Diego.
The turning point yesterday came late in the third quarter, the Patriots holding a 20-13 lead but the Jets driving into New England territory.
When quarterback Chad Pennington dropped back to pass, he lofted an attempt in the direction of receiver Jerricho Cotchery. Outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin batted the ball down, and many players on the field believed the play was over as a result of an incomplete pass, but not nose tackle Vince Wilfork. He picked up the loose ball and rumbled 31 yards to the Jets’ 15-yard line.
Because the pass attempt was behind the line of scrimmage, it was ruled a fumble and technically was recorded a rush by Pennington.
In a heady game, it was the most heads-up play of all.
"I think the big play was the Wilfork recovery of the fumble and him rumbling down the field," Bruschi said.
The Patriots outscored the Jets, 17-3, after the recovery, with a 13-play, 63-yard scoring drive that chewed up 6:23 of the fourth quarter helping the team pull away.
Quarterback Tom Brady finished 22 of 34 for 212 yards and two touchdowns, improving to 11-1 in the playoffs. His favorite target was receiver Jabar Gaffney, who totaled eight receptions for 104 yards. Also of prime importance was the time in which Brady had to throw, as he was sacked just once and hardly pressured, which was a stark reversal from the last time the teams met, on Nov. 12, with the Jets harassing Brady for four sacks in a 17-14 victory. The Jets, who made a remarkable run to the playoffs in their first year under Mangini after winning just four games in 2005, were kept on their heels by a Patriots offense that opened the game in the no-huddle. Belichick said the first drive was important because it established the way the Patriots prepared to play. Quickly.
"The whole game was a little bit of a tempo game, both ways, on the line of scrimmage and getting players in and out," said Belichick, whose offense ran an eye-popping 73 plays (38 rushes, 35 passes).
Added Brady: "I have never been in a game where it was like that. We were rushing to the line of scrimmage and rushing to run plays."
The Jets countered by attempting to confuse the Patriots’ protection scheme, standing several players at the line of scrimmage and not declaring who would be rushing. In turn, the Patriots snapped the ball quickly to be the aggressor.
"They put a lot of pressure on us," said Jets linebacker Matt Chatham. "I think they countered it pretty well by playing quickly and not allowing for a lot of the disguise."
On the flip side, the word of the day for the Patriots’ defense was patience against a Jets offense that relied on the short pass. While the Jets had success moving the ball, they were held to three field goals on three trips inside the red zone.
The Patriots opened a 7-0 lead on their first drive, marching 65 yards on 10 plays out of their no-huddle attack. Running back Corey Dillon capped the march with an 11-yard touchdown run off right tackle.
The Jets scored the game’s next 10 points, a 28-yard first-quarter Mike Nugent field goal coming after a Dillon fumble deep in New England territory, and a 77-yard hookup from Pennington to Cotchery early in the second. The pass play was the longest completion in Jets playoff history, and was partially the result of a missed tackle by safety Artrell Hawkins.
The Patriots closed out the first half strong, however, with rookie Stephen Gostkowski tying the game at 10 with a 20-yard field goal, before Brady and Co. strung together an impressive 15-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Daniel Graham with 11 seconds left.
The teams traded field goals early in the third quarter, and with the Patriots holding a 20-13 lead, Wilfork came up with his big recovery with less than two minutes left in the period.
Gostkowski hit a 28-yard field goal, Brady hit Kevin Faulk for a 7-yard touchdown, and cornerback Asante Samuel returned an interception 36 yards for a touchdown to account for the Patriots’ final 17 points.
"I’m real proud of our team," Belichick said. "I thought they stepped up and played some of the best football that we’ve played all year as a team."
Smart football, too.
"I think you can most definitely look at this game as a chess match," Bruschi said. "The key for us was that we didn’t panic and had everyone on the same page."