Rex Ryan said this game was personal for him, but there were a whole lot players making it a whole lot of personal on the Gillette Stadium turf this afternoon.
And when it was over, the Jets had rocked the Patriots, stunned the NFL world and got what they had come up I-95 for — an immensely satisfying 28-21 triumph that simultaneously advanced them to their second consecutive AFC Championship Game and gave them payback for the 45-3 pasting they absorbed at Gillette last month.
"We came here for a reason, we got the victory, and I couldn't be happier," said Ryan, who now holds a 3-2 record over the Patriots and Bill Belichick, whom Ryan said he wanted to be a better head coach than just today. "That's a great football team, a great franchise, but we're not afraid of anybody."
And that, of course, means the Steelers. To get to where they want to go, the Green & White road show continues a week from today at Pittsburgh. Yes, at the same Heinz Field where the Jets vanquished the Steelers, 22-17, a month ago. Kickoff will be at 6:30 p.m. EST.
To pull off this monster triumph in what Ryan called this past week "the second biggest game in franchise history," the Jets had to slay their AFC East rivals in a game virtually all the "experts" said couldn't be won. There was the Patriots' second-half-of-the-season dominance over everyone, the Jets included. Their magical takeaway margin. The Jets' lack of recent success at Gillette. Mark Sanchez's eight personal giveaways in the last two losses.
All of that was wiped away with the best 60 minutes of football the Jets played all season. The defense intercepted Tom Brady and slowed almost every drive the New England juggernaut mounted. Sanchez threw three touchdowns, wasn't sacked, and didn't turn the ball over.
"This was a great rubber match for us," said Sanchez, who completed 16 of 25 for 194 yards and wasn't sacked. "We treated them with respect all week — at least I did with my comments, because I do respect their coach and their quarterback and all their players. I just felt this week coming in, I needed to be smart and take what they gave me, not get caught up in 'Oh, you can't win up here,' and use that as fuel."
But the visitors knew these Patriots would not go gently into that good Massachusetts night. The Patriots finally scored their first touchdown of the game at the end of an eight-play, 80-yard march with Brady finding Alge Crumpler for a 2-yard TD pass with 13 seconds left in the third quarter, then got to within a field goal at 14-11 when Sammy Morris took a direct snap and leaped through the Jets' front line for the two-point conversion.
Yet the Green & White had more than enough fight left. Mark Sanchez spotted Jerricho Cotchery wide open over the middle and hit him in stride. J-Co, who had a 77-yard TD catch in the 2006 playoffs in Foxboro, took this one 58 yards to the NE-13. Three plays later, Sanchez made a marvelous throw, Santonio Holmes an incredible catch, getting his knee down inbounds in the end zone past CB Kyle Arrington, and the Jets were back up by 21-11 with 13:00 to play.
"It's fun to play up here, I've got to be honest with you," said Cotchery, who led an excellent wideout effort with five catches for a game-high 96 yards. "It's fun to play in this stadium. People can say what they want, but New England's been doing well for a long time. You have to come up here and fight through that. That's what I try to do every time I come up here and play these guys."
Again the Pats went on a drive into Jets territory, lasting almost eight minutes. But they never got closer than the Jets 31, and on fourth down at the 34, Brady couldn't hook up with Deion Branch. With 5:15 left the Jets took over at their 34.
Three-and-out and New England was back in the Jets red zone. Again the coverage downfield stopped the Pats. Shayne Graham banked his 35-yard field goal off the right upright but was saved by the two-minute warning being called just before he kicked. Then he lofted the kick through, cutting the lead to 21-14 with 1:57 to play.
The Pats tried the onside kick and Graham's tapper was batted around a few times before Antonio Cromartie, on the forward "hands" team, plucked the ball off the turf and roared to the Pats 25. Two plays later, the New England defense gave up its left edge, and Shonn Greene, reprising his heroics from last year's divisional-round win at San Diego, strode 16 yards for the TD to make it 28-14 with 1:41 to play.
Ryan was so overjoyed that he ran all the way from midfield to the end zone to congratulate his team.
Still the home team wouldn't quit. Brady found Branch for a 13-yard TD with 24 seconds left. With no timeouts left, Graham attempted one more onside kick. Eric Smith recovered and it was time for Sanchez and the offense — and the entire team — to assume the victory formation and kneel down for a hard-earned victory, punctuated by Braylon Edwards' backflip at midfield.
One observer said Brady was "befuddled" by the Jets' coverages. And Shaun Ellis, who sacked Brady twice and hurried him a few other times, said the legendary QB "just couldn't get a bead on us."
The game started delightfully for the Jets. Brady and the New England offense were doing what they like to do — drive the ball — when something rare indeed happened. Brady threw an interception.
Super Tom's regular-season NFL-record streak of 335 consecutive passes without a pick will remain intact, but his streak in games that count ended at 340 when he overthrew BenJarvus Green-Ellis and found the breadbasket of David Harris. The Jets' Most Valuable Player gassed out at the end of his return, but no wonder. He took the ball 58 yards to the Patriots 12.
However, the Jets couldn't move and Nick Folk put a 30-yard field goal attempt over the top of the left upright, no good.
But soon the Jets scored their first touchdown in their last seven quarters at Gillette on Sanchez's first TD strike, to LaDainian Tomlinson for 7 yards to the pylon. That also gave the visitors their first lead since Jay Feely's OT field goal beat the Pats on Thursday night in 2008.
Then came the key to the first half — and some will say to the game — and a rare coaching backfire by Belichick. On fourth down the Pats boss rolled the dice with a fake punt, the snap going not to punter Zoltan Mesko but to upback Patrick Chung. However, Chung fumbled the ball on the ground and was tackled after trying to salvage something at the Pats 37.
"I think we would've made the tackle even if he hadn't dropped the snap," said Smith, who added that ST coordinator Mike Westhoff alerted his punt-block team to the fake possibility from the sideline.
And with 33 seconds left, the Jets went up by 11 points as Sanchez hit Edwards on a slant past rookie Devin McCourty and Braylon fought McCourty and Brandon Meriweather all the way to the end zone
"A stunner. A stunner," said Patriots radio analyst Gino Cappelletti.
And that's the way everyone in football took this outcome. Everyone, that is, except the Jets. And who can blame many of them if they just didn't want to talk Black & Gold just yet.
"I'll tell you what," Ryan said when asked his first Steelers question of the postgame. "I'll let you know tomorrow or the next day. First I'm going to enjoy this one."
The Jets scored all their touchdowns in the red zone, giving Sanchez and the offense their first four-TD RZ game since 2008 against St. Louis. ... The Jets' halftime lead of 14-3 was their largest in a playoff game since 2002 (24-0 over the Colts) and their largest in their last five games vs. New England (24-13 in 2008 at Gillette). ... Greene led the Jets' 120-yard rushing game with 76 yards on 17 carries, with Tomlinson supplying 43 on 10 carries plus two catches for 2 yards — a minus-5-yarder to go with his 7-yard TD.
The Jets sacked Brady five times, their most of TB in 15 games. ... CB Drew Coleman, playing on a sore knee, recorded his fourth sack in five games and LB Calvin Pace had a strip sack of Brady that the Pats recovered. ... The Jets had as many takeaways today (one) as New England's previous eight opponents combined as the Pats fashioned a plus-23 takeaway margin over their final eight regular-season games.
Former Jets RB Danny Woodhead led the Patriots with 46 yards on 14 carries and added 52 more on six receptions. ... Smith, who had another strong game with seven solo tackles plus a game-high three more tackles on kick coverage, hit Wes Welker so hard that pieces of his helmet flew into the air. ... Brad Smith was inactive with his sore groin, but perhaps the rest will have him ready to roll at Pittsburgh. ... Dennis Byrd, a guest of the Jets for this The Jets' gameday captains carried Byrd's jersey No. 90 out to midfield with them before the opening coin toss.