Graham watches the punt
In the final game of their trilogy with the New England Patriots, the New York Jets dropped a 37-16 Wild Card decision at Gillette Stadium. A successful first season under head coach Eric Mangini reached its conclusion on this beautiful January day, but not without another brave fight from the Green & White.
This game turned in the third quarter on a critical turnover. The Jets, trailing 20-13, had the ball inside Patriots' territory, when quarterback Chad Pennington threw backwards to Jerricho Cotchery. Linebacker Rosevelt Colvin read the play from the start, almost picking off the lateral in mid-air. The ball wandered about for a few seconds before New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork recovered for the Pats and advanced to the Jets' 15-yard line. The Jets' defense came on the field and forced a 28-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal, but the kick made it a two-possession game for the first time.
"I told the team that I was proud of the way they fought," Mangini said. "I was proud of the way they approached the preparation and their effort throughout the course of the week and in the game. But in the end, it still came down to execution."
Entering the final quarter down 10, Pennington used his right arm to take the Jets back into scoring territory. He completed five of seven passes for 66 yards before Mike Nugent hit his third field goal of the afternoon, a 37-yard make. Sure enough though, the Patriots displayed their champion moxie and immediately answered. Brady's seven-yard scoring toss to Kevin Faulk beat the blitz and built the lead to 14.
"We needed to get off the field and we didn't," said linebacker Eric Barton. "They're a good team, and they capitalize on mistakes and they did."
Facing a two-touchdown deficit with a little more than six minutes remaining, everyone knew the Jets had to put the ball up in the air including Asante Samuel, whose 10 regular season interceptions tied for the league-high. Samuel stepped in front of a Pennington pass intended for Justin McCareins and had a clear path up the left sideline, racing 36 yards for a touchdown. The scoreboard read 37-16 for the home team and any hopes for a comeback were finished.
"Some people just don't realize how hard these guys have worked and the type of guys we have in this locker room," Pennington said. "We have a lot of character guys who care not only about the game, but who care about each other and believe in each other."
The Patriots came out swinging at the opening bell. They received the kickoff and promptly marched 65 yards over 10 plays, ending on an 11-yard Corey Dillon gallop to the end zone. Using a no-huddle attack, Brady completed four of six passes for 50 yards. Wideout Jabar Gaffney was Brady's favorite target on the march, hauling in three receptions for 34 yards.
But the Jets would hold their ground, standing toe-to-toe with their AFC East rivals. Defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson forced a Dillon fumble deep inside Patriots' territory; it was Dillon's first career postseason fumble in 110 touches. Former Patriot corner Hank Poteat recovered for the Green & White at the 15-yard line. Four plays later, Mike Nugent got the Jets on the board with 2:36 remaining in the opening quarter.
"We did a good job of getting down there, but we didn't put it in the end zone," Pennington said of his team settling for field goals on each of their trips to the red zone. "Give them credit for holding us out."
"They are an outstanding defense overall, but they are particularly solid in the red zone," added veteran guard Pete Kendall.
On the second play of the second quarter, Pennington threw on-target to Jerricho Cotchery. The third-year wideout from N.C. State found a seam in the zone, and then had room to turn up-field after hauling it in. Safety Artell Hawkins took a bad angle and Cotchery exploded down the right sideline to complete a 77-yard catch and run. The longest pass play in Jets' postseason history silenced the home crowd for a few moments.
Trailing for the first time at 10-7, the Patriots countered with a chip shot Gostkowski field goal following three critical plays. Laurence Maroney returned a short kickoff 29 yards to the 42-yard line, linebacker Jonathan Vilma narrowly missed a strip-sack on a Brady third down scramble, and then Poteat was charged with a pass interference penalty which set the Pats up inside the five.
The Pats completed the first half on a 10-point run as Brady connected with tight end Daniel Graham for a one-yard score just 11 seconds to intermission. Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, made a perfect pass to Graham who caught the ball in front of linebacker Brad Kassell. New England, up 17-10 at the break, held first half advantages in first downs (17-6), rushing yardage (101-19), and time of possession (18:54 – 11:06).
"It was really just a breakdown of the coverage," Vilma said of the Graham touchdown which came on third and goal. "We had a couple of guys in place who could have made the play but didn't make the play. It was a good throw by Brady and Graham made the catch. That was just one of many plays where they capitalized on our mistakes."
Not deterred, the Jets came out of their corner for the start of the third and responded once again. Mike Nugent culminated a 13-play drive with a 21-yard boot. The Jets got down to the three-yard line but took the points after a measurement showed the visitors were two yards shy of a first down.
"They're pretty good in the red zone and they've been good all year," Mangini said of the Patriots. "We knew it would be tough to score there. The way that the game was going, we knew that points would be at a premium so I thought it was best to get the field goal."
That field goal was offset by Gostkowski's 40-yard kick. The Green & White tightened up inside their red zone, receiving good backfield coverage which resulted in a shared sack from linebacker Eric Barton and defensive end Bryan Thomas. As time ticked off the clock in the third quarter, the Pats held a 20-13 lead.
On Saturday evening, Mangini invited Arturo "Thunder" Gatti to speak to his team. Gatti, one of the most exciting boxers in the history of the sport, talked to the Green & White about his memorable punishing junior welterweight trilogy with "Irish" Micky Ward between May, 2002 and June, 2003. After dropping the first match-up, Gatti scored back-to-back unanimous decisions in close combat that could have been staged in a phone booth and not a ring. In their final battle, Gatti won despite breaking his hand in the fourth round and recovering from a knockdown in the sixth round.
The Jets fell in their first encounter against the Patriots, but then won a thriller at Gillette Stadium in November. The Pats came out on top Sunday, but you get the sense there will be a number of prize fights to come for Mangini's Jets.