EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - This is not why they play. We know that. No professional sports team plays in order to shut up the loud-mouth coach of some other team.
But let’s be realistic. Winning this game, at this particular time, in this particular place . . . C’mon, this had to be sweeeeeeeeet!
And, my Lord. What loyal fans! The crowd of 79,088 was down to a gathering that could have been squeezed into Rex Ryan’s basement by game’s end.
“You’re not going to beat New England - you’re not going to beat many teams - when you make the mistakes we made,’’ the Jets coach confessed. “We’ve been down this road before. I apologize to our fans. They were ready for the game, just like I thought we were ready. Disappointing.’’
The long-term ramifications of this exquisite 37-16 Patriots triumph include control of the AFC East, which, combined with Buffalo’s implosion in Dallas - their third straight loss - is now New England’s to win or lose.
But let’s dwell on the short term, because this Patriots’ performance deserves to be saluted. There is no way to exaggerate the hype leading up to this game down here. This was going to be the Armageddon of all Armageddons, the night when the balance of power in the northeast quadrant of the American Football Conference was going to shift in favor of the New York Jets, once and for all.
It wasn’t just the media cranking it up. They were armed with ample verbal ammunition supplied by both the Jets coaching staff and many of the Jets players. There didn’t seem to be the slightest doubt in anyone’s mind that the Jets would win, and win convincingly.
But the Jets laid a pretty good-sized Brontosaurus egg, starting with Nick Folk missing a 24-yard field goal on the first possession of the game, and continuing with some awful turnovers. There was a muffed punt by Joe McKnight that led to a Patriots field goal, and there were two Mark Sanchez interceptions, the first setting up a third-quarter touchdown and the second being what you call a pick-six.
Oops, almost forgot. The man winding up in possession of both INTs was linebacker Rob Ninkovich. He was a somewhat lucky beneficiary of good fortune on the first, which was deflected from intended receiver Shonn Greene to Jerod Mayo and then to Ninko, who returned it 18 yards.
But Ninko made his own luck on the second one, jumping LaDainian Tomlinson’s route and taking it 12 yards to the house to put the game out of reach at that 37-16 juncture with 7:45 remaining, at which point the great fan exodus to the MetLife Stadium parking lots began.
Tom Brady did have his little moments of mortality in the first quarter and a half with some weirdly off-target throws, but, starting with the final possession of the half, he reminded the boisterous mentor of the Jets that one of the significant gaps between his team and Ryan’s team remains the experience and skill level of the respective quarterbacks.
For while Mark Sanchez was little better than NFL average from start to finish, Tom Brady (26 for 39, 329 yards, three TDs, zero INTs) performed at his eventual Canton level when it most mattered.
After the Jets had scored to take a 9-6 lead with 1:20 remaining in the half, he took the Patriots 80 yards in six plays in an elapsed time of 1:11, capping the drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to the indispensable Rob Gronkowski (eight catches, 113 yards). That play, on which The Gronkster went high in the back corner of the end zone against Jets cornerback Donald Strickland, was a simple matter of 6 feet 6 inches, 265 pounds vs. 5-10, 185. More than that, it was an unfair battle between great athlete 6-6, 265 against great athlete 5-10, 185.
And when Plaxico Burress hauled in a 7-yard quasi-fade from Sanchez to cut New England’s lead to 23-16 on the first play of the fourth quarter, you knew that if the Patriots didn’t respond right then and there, the rest of the game was going to be very dicey.
Taking over on his 16, Brady orchestrated a 13-play drive that chewed up 6:51. The drive ended when Brady hit Deion Branch on about the 2 or 3 and the little guy spun into the end zone, whereupon he did a mock J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets routine right in front of famed Jets fan Fireman Ed. A bit over the top, maybe even a bit classless? Well, sure. But that tells you the Patriots knew very well what had been going on down here all week.
One of the things Brady did to bother the Jets was go into hurry-up mode on that scoring drive at the end of the half. The Jets acted as if this was an absolutely novel concept, something never before seen in the history of the National Football League.
“We had to be alert for it,’’ Ryan said. “We never could get the matchups we wanted. You have to give them credit.’’
The Patriots should get credit for a lot, including five sacks, 4 1/2 being credited to Andre Carter, and one-half to Mark Anderson. The defense, which has been showing incremental improvement in the last two games, was, well, professional. Hey, this year we’ll take anything under 400 yards.
It was just too bad the return trip was so short. The Patriots deserved a better shot at celebrating after this one.