All season long, the Jets have been doing things the hard way. They created controversies that hung over them with their words and actions, and paid the consequences with three December losses that dropped them from likely being the top seed in the AFC playoffs to No. 6. When given the opportunity to blow out opponents, the Jets seemed to ease up, requiring late-game heroics on multiple occasions to defeat subpar teams. Even leading up to their biggest game of the year, it was off-field chatter instead of on-field performance that was the main story line surrounding Gang Green.
On Sunday in New England, the Jets turned the tables. Instead of making life difficult for themselves, New York caused problem after problem for the Patriots. On offense, that meant a healthy balance of physical runs and short, safe passes that on multiple occasions gashed the Pats' defense for big plays. On "D," it was constant pressure from the defensive line, outstanding downfield coverage by defensive backs and some timely blitzes to rattle QB Tom Brady. On special teams, it was the kickoff returns of Antonio Cromartie, who, on both deep kicks and onside ones, made his presence felt in the field-position battle. Even on the sideline in the coaching battle, it was Rex Ryan's trash talking leading up to the game and calmness during it that outmatched his counterpart, Bill Belichick.
The 28-21 victory over their AFC East rivals advances the Jets to the AFC championship game for the second season in a row; Ryan's club became the first team to win at least two road games in consecutive playoffs in NFL history. New York now travels to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, the only team the Jets beat during their December slide just a few weeks ago.
The PFW Spin
In order to beat the Patriots, the Jets had to not only duplicate what they did in the wild-card round — where they held Peyton Manning and the Colts to 16 first downs and the same number of points — but improve on it. Not in terms of numbers, but performance. If New York was going to win what Ryan called "the second-biggest game in the history of this franchise" (after Super Bowl III), the team had to play its best 60 minutes of the season defensively.
To the surprise of nearly everyone, the Jets did exactly that. Brady put up yards (299 of them through the air), but the New York defense made the likely league MVP of 2010 scrap and claw for every single yard. The Jets hit him seven times, confused him (sacking him a season-high five times), intercepted him (for the first time in 340 throws), then hit him again, receiving contributions from a wide array of defensive players in a fantastic all-around performance against the league's likely MVP.
DE Shaun Ellis, the veteran leader of the unit, dominated New England's O-line with speed and force, finishing with five tackles and two sacks. The longest-tenured Jet also had a huge run-stuff in the fourth quarter when the Pats were driving, cementing the win for his club.
CB Darrelle Revis, the most talented of the Jets' defenders, showed why he was worth the $46 million the team agreed to pay him over the summer, making six tackles and breaking up several other plays with great downfield coverage.
Less-heralded players like FS Eric Smith and CB Drew Coleman, who did phenomenal jobs in run coverage and zone blitzes, made their presence felt. So, too, did underrated ILB David Harris, the Jets' leading tackler on Sunday (with 12) whose first-quarter pick of Brady set the early tone for how the game would unfold. Reserve safety James Ihedigbo told The New York Times afterward that it was Ryan's scheme that allowed so many players to contribute to Brady's struggles.
"When you really apply that mental pressure, that's where you're successful," Ihedigbo said. "We showed a lot of different looks to make him think he had what he wanted; then we'd give him something else. We flustered (Brady) and flustered the receivers — they weren't on the same page."
Now the attention turns to the Steelers in what will surely be another tough test for the Jets' defense. Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have the stats that Manning and Brady did, but he does have the hardware, winning two Super Bowls already in his young career. Pittsburgh is a physical team that can make plays in a variety of ways, just as the Patriots were. It is sure to be another difficult game for New York, but that suits the Jets well. They've been doing things the hard way — and their way — all year long.