Boy, this looked good in overtime. After a Pierre Woods sack and a Gary Guyton pass break-up, the Jets faced a third down and 15 from their own 15-yard line. Had the Patriots held there, they would have gotten the ball back into the hands of their molten-hot quarterback Matt Cassel, the guy who’d just directed a 62-yard touchdown drive with 1:04 left to tie it in regulation.
But New York got the first down on Brett Favre’s 16-yard pass to tight end/newly-established nemesis Dustin Keller, and they got every first down they needed after that, eventually getting a 34-yard field goal for the win.
Maybe Cassel’s performance (30 for 51, 400 yards, three touchdowns) will propel New England to better things. Maybe the play of the defense, led by Jerod Mayo (20 tackles), will become more consistent.
But – and this has to be in the mind of every New England fan this morning – maybe it’s too late to matter. The Patriots find themselves at 6-4, looking up at the Jets, AFC East leaders at 7-3. And the worst part is, it didn’t have to be this way.
Sure, the Patriots stayed close with a second-half surge, but they lost the game in plenty of ways. From early on, due to lack of energy and execution, it seemed it wouldn’t be the home team’s night. That became apparent during the Jets’ opening drive, on the incomplete pass to Lavernues Coles that was overturned for a first down, and the 21-yard pass to Keller (damn you, Keller!), and Favre’s bubble screen for to Leon Washington for a touchdown. Add to that Washington’s kick return touchdown and a near-impossible helmet catch by Jerricho Cotchery leading to New York’s third TD, and this one seemed well over before the half.
And yet … New England put together several solid second-half stands (my alliteration allotment for the column) and a couple of consistent offensive drives to tie this thing. For Patriots fans, that’s what hurts so much.
New England looked kinda/sorta game on their opening drive. Cassel tossed first down passes to Benjamin Watson and Jabar Gaffney to get his team to New York’s 27. With that success through the air, New England called a curious Kevin Faulk draw on third and five, coming up four yards short. The Pats settled for a 42-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal and a 7-3 deficit with five minutes left in the first quarter.
By the way, NFL Network announcer Chris Collinsworth wants you to know that Matt Cassel isn’t the same quarterback as Tom Brady. (Thanks, Chris. We were fuzzy on that whole situation.) Despite this, Collinsworth also managed to remain shocked – shocked – that the Jets could possibly beat the Patriots. Go figure.
On their second drive, the Jets used their version of a Wildcat formation, which to me is becoming the Pulp Fiction of the NFL: everyone tries to emulate it, and many who do end up looking silly. New York’s version worked, however, as Brad Smith took the direct snap and ran 17 yards down to the five. Keller missed a second-down pass, then got a pass knocked away from him on third down by Woods and Brandon Meriweather. The Patriots thus held the Jets to a field goal and trailed 10-3 at the end of the first.
(My cure for the Wildcat formation? Knock the bejeezus out of the quarterback. I don’t understand why defenses don’t do this. If the QB’s split wide where protective rules don’t apply, hit him. Hard. A few sore spots from getting jammed at the line might make offensive coordinators think twice about putting their number ones out there in harm’s way.)
New England got more points in the second quarter, just not as many as they wanted (or would end up needing). Overall, Cassel looked strong on the drive, scrambling for 12 yards and passing to Faulk in the flat for 19 down to the Jets’ 13. There the offense would stagnate, however, as Cassel missed passes to Randy Moss in the end zone and Watson on the right sideline. Instead of tying the game, they had to let Gostkowski do his voodoo and cut the lead to 10-6, Jets.
While many wondered how New England’s defense would respond, they didn’t get the chance, as Washington ran back the ensuing kickoff 96 yards. The Patriots neglected to cover the entire right side of the field (rookie Jonathan Wilhite seemed out of position, and he had plenty of friends in that regard), making Washington’s jaunt an easy one. That put the score at 17-6, New York, with the home team needing something more than a field goal to stay in it.
Perhaps unmotivated to get much accomplished on their next offensive possession (because, really, that’s what it looked like), New England was forced to punt the ball away. The Jets capitalized on the aforementioned helmet-catch (I hate that phrase) with a 15-yard TD pass to Cotchery. Yup, 24-6, Jets, and my dinner wasn’t sitting well.
After Cassel’s 12-yard pass to Watson and 43-yard bubble screen to Sam Aiken (featuring a kickout block by Matt Light and a crushing downfield hit by Logan Mankins), the Pats looked like they had, at last, taken some momentum down to New York’s 30. The home team came crashing down to Earth, as Dan Koppen got hurt on a third and one play that lost yardage. It appeared that Koppen got his arm sandwiched between asteroid-sized defender Kris Jenkins and fullback Heath Evans. Cassel got sacked on fourth down: Turnover, Patriots.
When the Jets failed to run out the clock for the first half, New England finally got into the end zone with 15 seconds left. Cassel sought out Gaffney, working single coverage on Jets rookie Dwight Lowery, and connected on an over-the-shoulder pass to cut the margin to 24-13.
New England’s offense started clicking to open the third, running a multiple-wide formation. Cassel hit Gaffney for a first down. Faulk ran for a first. For some reason Watson decided that his team had enjoyed enough success on that drive: he gathered in Cassel’s pass for what would have been a first down at New York’s 22, turned and fumbled for no apparent reason. Seriously, he just dropped the damn thing.
The Patriots’ defense attempted to make some momentum of their own, sacking Favre twice (Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour, respectively). The offense squandered the resulting possession with a 24-yard-loss on a fumbled shotgun snap where Cassel wasn’t even looking for the ball setting the home team back from the Jets’ 38 back to their own 38. That looked ugly, as in “sports blooper reel” ugly. On their ensuing possession, an incomplete third-and-one pass in which Ty Law knocked the ball out of Gaffney’s grasp only extended the agony.
For better or worse, the Patriots made it close by the end of the third (hey, it was fun while it was happening). Starting at his own 22 at the 2:25 mark, Cassel found Welker twice in a row for eight yards and 29 yards, the latter after a nice scramble to Cassel’s right where Welker found room to run after the catch. After a first down on a pass interference call, Gaffney took a short pass and cut inside for 14 yards to the Jet 18. On second and two from the 10, Cassel had plenty of time to scan the field before roping a pass to Watson in the back of the end zone. Seeking to capitalize on their hot streak, New England went for two points and got it when Gaffney gathered in Cassel’s pass across the middle. After a seven-play, 78-yard drive, the Patriots faced a mere 23-20 deficit with an entire quarter left.
New England’s good fortune continued as Jason Webster’s tackle on Cotchery caused a fumble that Guyton recovered. Cassel gained 17 on a heady scramble up the middle. On third and four, Cassel’s next scramble netted only two yards. The Patriots called on Gostkowski to tie the game, and they were rewarded with his 47-yarder with 10:16 left.
On their final TD drive, the Jets took 14 plays to go 67 yards and remove 7:06 off the clock. Though aided by an invisible motherflippin’ holding penalty on Vrabel that gave them a first down at the three, the Jets deserve credit for their efficiency, averaging almost five yards on first down during that drive (until they got to New England’s three).
Losing seven yards on their ensuing possession, the Patriots elected to punt at the 2:35 mark. It turned out to be the right call, as the defense held and got the ball back to the home team at their own 38 with 1:04 remaining. Cassel needed all but one second of that to tie it, hitting Watson twice for nine and 11 yards, Welker twice for 17 and 16, and Randy Moss in the near-right corner of the end zone for 16 yards and the tying TD. Moss posted up Ty Law and dove for the ball as it headed out of bounds, keeping his feet in long enough to register six points.
Then, overtime, the coin coming up tails, and another loss that had the Patriots lamenting their opportunities. Ah, expletives. How well I’ve gotten to know you this season.
You might say that New England should have won this game, but let me ask you this: should the team that surrendered a first down on third and 15 in OT win the game? How about a team that allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, or fumbled twice (once at their opponent’s 22, once on a shotgun snap), or gave up 56 percent third-down efficiency? That, dear readers, fails to live up to the standards of a winning team, even in today’s mediocre NFL.
On the other hand, maybe this game will prove, once and for all, that Cassel can move this team, come from behind, and give them a chance to win. Maybe the young defenders taking over for Rodney Harrison, Thomas and Warren can gel and make stops against upcoming opponents. Maybe in the future, fans will look upon this loss as another important learning experience.
Maybe. But right now, I don’t care.
Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.