The Patriots probably cannot imagine a worse way to get eliminated from the playoffs than what happened on Sunday. They lost at home for the second year in a row, but this year it was to the hated Jets, the team that trash-talked them all week, the team they beat 45-3 in Week 13.
The Pats didn't just get beat. They looked silly and confused in each facet of the game. They went into their bag of tricks a few times, showing a sense of desperation. Even after the touchdown and two-point conversion that got them within 14-11, it still didn't look like the Patriots would have enough magic.
When the war of words finally ended and the two teams hit the field, the Jets were the better team, as they exposed the Patriots' inexperience and reliance on Tom Brady.
The loss rendered the Pats' 14-2 regular season, including that 45-3 win over the Jets, a moot point. The bright side Pats fans can take with the season over (although few expected it to end so soon) is the six draft picks New England has in the first three rounds and the youth of the current team that will just get better.
But that doesn't help the sour taste the Jets have left in the mouths of everyone in the Pats' organization.
The PFW Spin
I had said all along that, on paper, the Jets were a better team than the Patriots. They had better, or at least comparable, players at every position except quarterback. Granted, that's a pretty important position.
It's quarterback and coach that guided the Patriots to a 14-2 regular-season record. Brady won Pro Football Weekly/PFWA MVP, Belichick won PFW/PFWA Coach of the Year, and both were well-deserved. With so many players hurt and so many rookies playing regularly, the Patriots were not a 14-2 team, especially considering their schedule.
But Brady and Belichick were beat when it mattered most. Rex Ryan said all he had to do was be better than Belichick on Sunday, and he was. Ryan said he took a lot of suggestions of how to stop the Patriots, and it seemed he took a page out of Belichick's book himself — just have better personnel.
The Patriots' defense that was missing DL Ron Brace, Ty Warren and Mike Wright, DBs Leigh Bodden and Brandon McGowan and that regularly started four rookies and sometimes played up to six in a game, allowed the Pats to still win 14 games and lead the league in takeaways. How, exactly? Confusing coverages, disguises at the line of scrimmage, well-timed blitzes — Belichick-type work.
Well, that's what the Jets did, but they had better personnel.
It's no shock that the Patriots gave up 28 points. It's no surprise that the Jets' running backs, Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson, rushed for 119 yards on 27 carries (4.4 average) against an injury-depleted front seven. It's no surprise that Mark Sanchez had a 127.3 passer rating, Jerricho Cotchery had a 58-yard catch-and-run and Santonio Holmes had a great TD catch against the Patriots' 30th-ranked passing defense. It's also no surprise that Antonio Cromartie gained nearly 26 yards on his kickoff returns against one of the Patriots' weakest special-teams units.
The surprise is that the Pats didn't score 30 points for the first time since Week Nine, that Brady threw an interception for the first time since Week Six, that he recorded his lowest passer rating (89.0) since Week Seven and that they allowed a season-high five sacks.
All season long, the Patriots have won games because of Brady and an opportunistic defense — that had been their recipe for success. But it was Ryan's defense that created confusion and created the big takeaway. With Cromartie and Darrelle Revis jamming receivers at the line, and Jets safeties not allowing tight ends or Wes Welker to have room in space, Brady was often flustered in the pocket, something that contributed to a few of the sacks.
And that's what the Patriots did to Mark Sanchez in Week 13. The Pats would bring seven, eight guys into the box and rush only three. Sanchez looked confused and threw three picks. The Patriots' defense also had the luxury most of the year of playing with a lead, like they did in Week 13, and therefore didn't have to worry much about stopping the run.
The Jets took that out of the equation on Sunday, forcing an inexperienced defense to step up and make a play when necessary on the Jets' scoring drive to go up 10 in the fourth quarter, and the Pats couldn't do it. They never sacked Sanchez and didn't create a turnover.
Brady will get heat for his third consecutive playoffs loss, and he should. He said on Monday that he expected similar coverage that he saw the Jets throw at Peyton Manning, yet he wasn't able to adjust and move the football. "That definitely crossed our minds that they'd be doing similar-type things," he said on WEEI. He went on to take responsibility, adding, "I really let the team down and didn't play the way I was capable."
It might have been an MVP season for Brady and a masterful coaching job by Belichick, but in the one-and-done system of the NFL playoffs, that means nothing. The Patriots don't have to worry about a whole lot of rebuilding or turnover and the future is clearly bright after such significant contributions from younger players, but they will have to wait another year to win when it matters most.