FOXBOROUGH - As fans filed into Gillette Stadium yesterday for the Patriots’ uber-hyped divisional round playoff game with the rival Jets, they were given small white towels to wave throughout the showdown.
Talk about a poor choice of color.
For all of their boasting and bravado, for all of their name-calling and threats, when it was time to play, New York came out and moved Tom Brady all over and generally made him uncomfortable, jammed the Patriots receivers, and played mistake-free on offense.
All of which made for a 28-21 win, allowing the Jets to move on to their second straight AFC title game, this one against Pittsburgh.
It was yet another surprise in a season full of them for New England, an abrupt end to a campaign that just a couple of days ago seemed like it would last a few weeks longer.
“Your emotions are going to be extreme - you’re either going to be really happy or really sad,” tight end Alge Crumpler said. “I hate that we all have to feel this way.”
It was the second year in a row that New England lost its opening playoff game on its own field, and yesterday’s result was no less shocking than last year’s defeat by Baltimore, though each came in a different way. The Ravens landed a roundhouse punch just after the opening bell that the Patriots never recovered from; New York took the bout by just landing more blows over the course of the fight.
The Patriots earned the top seed in the AFC by virtue of their 14-2 regular-season mark, one that included a 45-3 drubbing of the Jets a little more than a month ago. That night, it seemed New England could do nothing wrong.
Things weren’t exactly the polar opposite yesterday, though several aspects of the game were highly uncharacteristic for the Patriots.
To start with, their first possession ended with a Brady interception. It was a rare occurrence, one that hadn’t happened in 339 pass attempts - or since October.
On first down from the Jets 28, Brady faked a handoff to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, faked an end-around to Brandon Tate, and then jumped to try and get a pass to Green-Ellis over the traffic.
The ball ended up in linebacker David Harris’s hands. Harris was tracked down by Crumpler, who was determined not to let him score, at the Patriots’ 12.
Any damage done by the interception was negated by the Patriots defense. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who had struggled mightily in his first two trips to Gillette Stadium, tripped ballcarrier Shonn Greene, who was taken down by Eric Moore for a 3-yard loss on first down and Vince Wilfork dropped LaDainian Tomlinson for a 5-yard loss on second down.
New York’s Nick Folk, who has had his share of problems, lined up for a 30-yard field goal and pushed it wide left.
“It cost us a scoring opportunity,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the interception. “We were driving into the red zone and gave it away. We lost an opportunity, they lost one [by not scoring].”
The Patriots had another missed opportunity on their next drive. Crumpler had a pass go off his hands in the end zone on second down and Brady was sacked on third down, forcing New England to take a 34-yard field goal by Shayne Graham.
Sanchez scattered the ball early, but he made a beautiful play to set up the Jets’ first touchdown, scrambling out of the pocket and connecting with Braylon Edwards on the left sideline for a 37-yard gain. With a fresh set of downs from the 8, Sanchez put a touch pass just over the shoulder of Tomlinson on second down from 7 yards out and LT scored.
The former Charger, who has been quite vocal about his dislike of the Patriots, flipped the ball up and mugged for the cameras after his score.
In a Jets’ postgame locker room that had even more trash talk than in the days before the game, Tomlinson said he was “at a loss for words” over the win.
New York scored again before halftime and took a 14-3 lead into the locker room. The crowd booed the Patriots as they went down the field-side steps into their tunnel. When they came back out, it appeared little had changed.
New England still had problems moving the ball, particularly on third down, when it was 5 for 14 (36 percent), and Brady found himself hit quite a bit. The Jets had five sacks and seven quarterback hits on the day.
For all of its issues though, New York was leaving the door open for the Patriots to make things interesting, and they did toward the end of the third quarter.
The first play of the drive was a 37-yard catch-and-run by Rob Gronkowski, and a good second effort by Deion Branch on third and 9 kept the chains moving.
Wes Welker, who did not start the game as punishment for his foot-reference-heavy news conference earlier in the week, took a hard hit over the middle (it knocked the paint off his helmet) a few plays later, and Crumpler redeemed himself with a 2-yard touchdown catch.
New England converted a 2-point conversion with a direct snap to Sammy Morris, the score was 14-11, and it seemed the game was on.
But to its credit, New York marched right back with a five-play touchdown drive, the highlight of which was a 58-yard pass to Jerricho Cotchery in which Cotchery broke several tackles.
The Jets were ahead, 21-11, with 13 minutes to play.
Normally, that’s more than enough time for Brady to get the Patriots into the end zone at least twice and for the defense to make a game-turning play.
None of that happened.
And with the lackadaisical way the Patriots offense seemed to be moving, it became even tougher for those scores to happen.
“We’re trying to get the ball down and get it in position,” Belichick explained about what seemed to be poor clock management.
“They were playing a lot of [defensive back] play coverages and we thought we had some good opportunities to run it. Some worked out and some we could have handled better.”
As bad as the words might have tasted, New England gave credit to the Jets for a game well-played.
“They beat us today,” receiver Deion Branch said. “We picked the wrong day, the wrong time, to play bad football.”