The Green Team had much riding on tonight's rematch with the Patriots at MetLife Stadium.
The Jets were trying to improve their home record over the Pats to 3-0 under Rex Ryan. They wanted to improve their home mark this season to a gaudy 5-0. And most important, they sought to takef sole possession of first place in the AFC East with seven games left in the regular season.
None of that was achieved as the Patriots withstood the hosts' late-first-half awakening for a short-lived 9-6 lead and then won going away, 37-16, before the at-first-raucous, at-last-disappointed sellout MetLife crowd.
Tom Brady threw a trio of touchdown passes, two to TE Rob Gronkowski and one to WR Deion Branch with eight minutes to play. And LB Rob Ninkovich put some icing on the cake with a 12-yard interception-return TD — his second pick of Mark Sanchez tonight — with 7:45 to play.
Instead, it's New England in the division's catbird seat, by just a game at 6-3 over the Jets' and Bills' 5-4. But with their second win over the Green & White this season and the AFC's easiest strength of schedule ahead, the prospect is that the Jets will again be fighting an uphill battle the rest of the way toward the playoffs.
"I apologize to our fans. Our fans were ready to go, just like I thought we were," a subdued Ryan said afterwards, adding that winning the division title "looks doubtful right now."
The Jets came into this game feeling confident they would be able to even the score against a New England side that had lost two straight to fall back to the pack and finally get a leg up on their rivals to the northeast. But the Patriots showed they were up to the challenge and then some.
"A lot of guys were surprised. We expected to play well," said Sanchez, who wound up with the fifth 300-yard game of his career but on 20-of-39 passing with a TD and a pair of picks and 78 of the yards coming in his final two drives. "We liked the game plan. Things set up right for us to go right down the field on our opening drive, then we don't get the touchdown, we don't get the field goal."
The third quarter began with a trio of three-and-outs — one by the Jets but two by the Patriots. But the Jets wasted the defense's second stop when Joe McKnight, one of several punt returners for the hosts, muffed Zoltan Mesko's punt. The visitors ultimately recovered at the Jets 13 and the game was at a dangerous point for the Green & White and their fans.
The Jets held when a Brady-to-Gronkowski TD pass was reversed because the big TE had stepped on the end line before the catch. But Stephen Gostkowski made it 3-for-3 with a 27-yarder and the Patriots went up, 16-9.
Then Sanchez's first interception, a doubfle-carom affair, was taken by Ninkovich to the Pats 43 and the Red, White & Blue team was in business again. This time Brady found Gronkowski for a 6-yard score in the middle of the end zone, no danger of him stepping out of bounds, and New England had opened a 23-9 margin with 4:44 left in the third quarter.
The Jets' offense, which responded with its first touchdown on a Sanchez keeper late in the first half, clawed back to within seven as the QB threw a 7-yard fade to Plaxico Burress over CB Antwaun Molden on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But Brady responded artfully, leading his offense back down the field to his third TD pass — tying his personal best at the Jets in his career set in the 2007 Meadowlands opener — to Branch, spinning away from Kyle Wilson inside the 5, with 8:04 to play. And Ninkovich's six-point theft 19 seconds later made it all but official.
The Patriots' discipline led them to catch the Jets defense with their no-huddle on occasions.
"We got caught," said S Jim Leonhard. "We do a lot of things where we're trying to match personnel, and every once in a while they get in that hurry-up and it catches us. It's something that you know is coming but at the same time it's difficult for us sometimes with as many bodies as we have moving around."
The lackluster second half and final result were not what the Jets had been anticipating. And they immediately have to shake their doldrums Monday because on Wednesday they leave for their Thursday night game to take on Tim Tebow and the Broncos in Denver.
LaDainian Tomlinson, who said he was "all right" after sustaining a late leg injury, outlined the Jets' best approach now that they are in effect two games behind the Patriots with seven to play.
"To not win a game is a setback, but at the same time we still have a lot of ballgames to play," LT said. "The good thing about it is we play Thursday so we can move on quickly."
"This was a tough loss. We really wanted this one," said guard Matt Slauson. "But the worst thing we can do now is to let the Patriots beat us again by hanging our heads this week. We have to come in tomorrow and get ready to play the Broncos."
A Fighting Chance in the First Half
The crowd was loud and proud from before the opening introductions. And the Jets opened on fire as well as Sanchez moved the offense down the field with three big completions, two to Holmes and one to Burress. But then the hosts bogged down inside the Patriots 10, and Nick Folk came on for a 24-yard field goal. He missed left — his first miss in his last 12 tries at MetLife.
Similarly, Brady moved the Patriots across midfield toward the Jets' red zone. But he never got there as the defense sent the Pats backward to third-and-17 from their 32. However, the visitors struck first as Gostkowski dropped a 50-yard field goal over the crossbar.
The Jets moved a little but Andre Carter, the 11th-year pro who erupted for a 4.5-sack game, got his first sack of Sanchez on third down and the Patriots drove again. The key play was a 53-yard completion from Brady to Chad Ochocinco, left open in a coverage mixup. But the defense stiffened and Gostkowski returned, this time for a 36-yarder and a 6-0 lead.
But after the Jets' fourth series stalled, T.J. Conley's low punt bounced favorably for the home team, rolling all the way to the Patriots 7 with nine minutes left in the half. That led to a three-and-out, but the Jets couldn't move again.
Conley proceeded to rock a 5.0-second hanger fair-caught by Julian Edelman at the Pats 8. And this time the visitors' bad field position paid off for the hosts. On third-and-13, Brady dropped back into the end zone and Jamaal Westerman, with a vicious push into the backfield, pressured TB into unloading a pass just before Westerman got the sack. But the effect was the same — a penalty in the end zone and the Jets' fifth defensive safety in their last 18 games. It was 6-2, Pats.
The Green & White started out after the free kick at their 35 but, highlighted by WR Patrick Turner's first catch of the season for 22 yards, moved briskly to third-and-goal at the Patriots 2. After their second timeout, Sanchez spread his offense out, then kept off his right side, stretching the ball across the goal line for his third rushing TD of the season and ninth of his career for a 9-6 lead with 1:20 to play in the half.
Trouble was the Patriots then got fired up themselves, moving 80 yards on six plays to Brady's 28th TD pass of his career against the Jets, a lob to Gronkowski in the end zone with nine seconds left.
Santonio Holmes led the Jets with six catches for 93 yards. ... Rookie Jeremy Kerley had his most productive game as a pro with four grabs for 79 yards. ... Turner left the game with a kidney injury and didn't return. ... The Jets, who knew they couldn't commit giveaways and play with the Pats, were a minus-3 for the game. Their three turnovers led to 17 of the Pats' points.
Brady, who had a 61.5 passer rating in his previous two visits to MetLife, finished 26-for-39 for 329 yards — his fourth 300-yard game in his last six outings vs. the Jets — and a 118.4 passer rating. ... Gronkowski had game highs of eight receptions and 113 yards. ... Carter's 4.5 sacks were the most by a Jets opponent since defensive sacks became official in 1982. It breaks the previous mark held by Colts LB Duane Bickett, who had four sacks, all of Ken O'Brien, for the Colts in 1987. ... And Ninkovich is the first opposing LB to have two INTs in a game since Oakland's William Thomas in 2000.