FOXBOROUGH - Late last Sunday, before the Patriots escaped the visitors’ locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium, coach Bill Belichick spoke to his players. The sting of that night had to stay there. "He told us to press on," cornerback Jonathan Wilhite said.
On Monday, Junior Seau gave his teammates an imperative. "Have a short memory," he said. When the Patriots gathered Wednesday for their first practice since their meltdown against the Colts, Belichick was convinced the Patriots had taken only one thing from the game.
"We couldn’t let last week beat us twice," linebacker Adalius Thomas said.
With their convincing 31-14 victory over the Jets yesterday, the Patriots offered an emphatic response to their crushing loss in Indianapolis last weekend and continued the Jets’ spiral out of contention in the AFC East. They also earned revenge against the once-swaggering, now-tumbling Jets, who in Week 2 humbled the Patriots in New York.
The Patriots bullied rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez into five turnovers, including three interceptions by cornerback Leigh Bodden, one of which he returned for the game’s first touchdown. The irrepressible Wes Welker gained more than 200 yards from scrimmage in the best game of his remarkable career, an epic 15-catch performance. Laurence Maroney, a goat last week for his late end zone fumble, scored two touchdowns, including the score that sealed the game with just more than five minutes left.
With another showdown looming a week from tonight against the undefeated Saints, the Patriots maintained their two-game lead in the division over the Dolphins. They still have not lost consecutive games since Nov. 12, 2006, and they stamped their resiliency on yesterday’s victory.
"That’s what makes your team and that’s how you know what team you have," running back Kevin Faulk said. "It was a very physical and emotional loss we had last week, but at the same time we knew as a team that we were coming back to play a team that [beat] us the last time we played them. We had to really focus."
Said Belichick: "That was a real good performance by our football team today. We came off, obviously, a tough weekend last week, night game and all that. They were ready to play this afternoon. I’m really proud of the way our guys stepped up."
Randy Moss against Darrelle Revis provided intriguing theater, but Welker against any Jets defender who dared try covering him provided the difference. Welker, who did not play in the Patriots’ Week 2 loss to the Jets, caught 15 passes for 192 yards and also gained 11 yards on an end around. By halftime, he already had 150 yards from scrimmage. By the end of the game, his 79 catches on the season gave him three more than any other NFL receiver and put him on pace for 138.
As for the marquee cornerback-receiver matchup, Revis shut down Moss. The Patriots fooled Revis with a quick snap and quick throw by Tom Brady when Moss caught a 4-yard touchdown to put the Patriots ahead, 14-0, in the first quarter. But Revis held Moss to five catches on the 11 balls Brady threw his way, none longer than 13 yards. Revis also drew a 10-yard offensive pass interference while defending Moss.
Still, Moss’s presence alone helped the Patriots break the game open. With 12 minutes left in the second quarter, Brady dropped back from the Jets’ 46-yard line. Moss ran an underneath pattern, and when he turned three defenders converged on him. None of them stayed with Welker. They had not seen Welker run down the field on film, but now he was sprinting, alone, down the seam.
"I think they got confused," Welker said. "I noticed it, and Tom did, too. So we just took off down the field."
Brady zinged a pass to Welker, and he carried it to the 3. Two plays later, Maroney plunged in to put the Patriots ahead, 21-0.
The Patriots dominated the first half, beginning with the Jets’ second drive of the game. Sanchez dropped back and fired left toward Jericho Cotchery, and the ball zipped into the arms of Bodden. He bolted straight ahead. Sanchez dived past Bodden along the sideline, and Bodden spread his arms as he cruised into the end zone with the first interception return touchdown of his career.
Later in the first half, Bodden picked off Sanchez again. At that point, Sanchez had thrown the same number of passes to Bodden as to his own receivers. Bodden had 60 return yards; Sanchez had 25 passing yards.
The Jets, though, found a way back into the game. Late in the second quarter, with Patriots lined up to punt, Eric Smith charged through a phalanx of blockers led by Pierre Woods and blocked Chris Hanson’s punt. The ball trickled into the arms of Brad Smith, who skipped into the end zone.
Sanchez righted himself long enough to throw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Cotchery on their first drive of the second half. Suddenly, the Jets had transformed a blowout into a taut 24-14 game.
"We just said, `We got to finish,"’ Thomas said. "We’ve got to have that killer mentality. When we’ve got teams down, we’ve got to keep them down."
Sanchez handed the Patriots some of their turnovers - "I didn’t know today was Dec. 25," Thomas said - but the Patriots defense never relented. Tully Banta-Cain forced the final turnover by plowing through a block and swatting at Sanchez’s right arm as Vince Wilfork collapsed the pocket. Derrick Burgess pounced on the ball at the New England 24-yard line.
The turnover, Sanchez’s fifth, effectively ended the game. While the Patriots finalized their victory, good news poured in from around the league. The Bengals and Steelers suffered shocking losses to the Raiders and Chiefs, which sent the Patriots into a three-way tie for the second seed and a bye in the first round. The Patriots, Bengals, and Chargers are all 7-3 overall and 5-3 in the conference.
Their surge toward a playoff bye will meet resistance a week from tonight in New Orleans. They’ll move on again today, but for last night the Patriots wanted to enjoy their win.
"You don’t want to lose any division games," Wilhite said. "But the great thing is, you get to play twice. You get to redeem yourself."