E. RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Third quarter blues?
Considering how lousy the Patriots play in the third quarter this year, you might have wanted to cart out B.B. King and his guitar. Maybe he could write a new song, entitled “Ah’ve got them Patriots Leavin’ Their ‘A’ Game In The Locker Room At Halftime Blues”. Of course, that was not the case on Sunday, as the Patriots never had their “A” game to begin with.
Is that a good thing?
The only blues out there in the third quarter were by the green team, and not the blue team. Just when all of you were thinking “Oh, well, 6-6 isn’t bad, let’s bring on Cleveland”, the Patriots, down 13-0 at the half to the New York Jets, put on one of the most incredible rally/turnarounds in recent team history. Just pulling this off was nice enough, but against whom and where they did it makes this one sweeter than standing with your main squeeze under some mistletoe in December.
Staring still another demoralizing loss to the Jets dead in the eye, the Patriots shook off a moribund first half and rallied for a 17-16 win here at the Meadowlands. The Patriots were as efficient in the second half as they were flat in the first half. Ditto for the Jets, in the complete inverse. The Patriots were able to pull off a winning rally that catapults them towards a playoff shot, and gives them perhaps the most confidence the team has had since the last Super Bowl run.
Taking the big picture into consideration, and all that has happened to the Patriots since the departure of Bill Parcells, this win might rank as the most important for this franchise in the last five years. The Pats of Pete Carroll had some nice ones, but those wins have been diminished in importance over time. This win on Sunday might send the Patriots back up towards the NFL elite, if they can avoid some trap games on the horizon.
You might as well toss the first half in the dumpster. The stats are odious, and the Patriots stunk worse. The Jets had the Patriots in total net yards, 219-67. They led in first downs, 12-3. Vinny Testaverde completed 15 of 23 passes for 164 yards against a defense that was keying on stopping former comrade Curtis Martin.
They at least slowed him down, with Martin gaining 37 yards on nine carries in the first half. But the Jets crossed up the Patriots by attacking through the air, as Testaverde hit seven different Jets for completions. One of them went to Laveranues Coles for 34 yards and a touchdown when Ty Law fell down covering him on a quick slant in, and Tebucky Jones could not run Coles down on his way to the house.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady was looking like someone who couldn’t start for East Yahuppetsville State U. He was only 5 of 11 in the first half for 53 yards. He was sacked twice, and looked like a chicken with his head cut off. Antowain Smith had only 11 yards on five carries. The Jet defense seemed to deal with Brady just like they did with Drew Bledsoe.
Ask yourself right now. How did you feel at halftime? Depressed? Angry? Bring on Cleveland?
Two things happened that brought the Patriots out of their funk in the second half. The Patriots needed a new plan, and they needed a spark to get them off on their comeback.
Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel pulled off one of the greatest coaching adjustment jobs of the last several years. They were able to make exactly the right changes, both offensively and defensively, and they came up aces.
On offense, Brady was limited to three steps on the dropback instead of five to seven. This shorter drop enabled the quarterback to get passes off quicker, and Brady would eventually find his targets more easily in the second half. And on defense, the Patriots went back to a cover-two scheme, and scaled back their overplay on Martin.
But the team, still listless and in a total funk, needed a jolt to get them going.
Consider Mike Vrabel’s play against Bledsoe and the Patriots in the 1997 divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh totally forgiven. On their first drive of the second half, the Jets had the ball at the Patriot 35. Richie Anderson gets nailed for a four-yard loss, then Testaverde drops back and spies a wide-open Coles in the right flat.
But Brandon Mitchell tips the ball on its way to Coles, and Vrabel picks off the dying quail. The Patriots take over at their 43, and the game was forever changed. The Patriots scored on each of their next three drives, and all of their confidence was fully restored.
Quick, who’s Fred Coleman? Patriot Nation found out quickly on the drive following the Vrabel pick. The Patriots drove 57 yards in five plays, 46 of those yards coming on a quick slant to Coleman, who raced from midfield to the Jet 4. Smith banged it in two plays later to get the Patriots on the board. Pats fans raced to their media guides and Internet info-sites to find out who the heck is Fred Coleman (he’s 26 years old, went to college at Washington, that grab was the first of his NFL career, and we’re still researching).
The Patriots did surrender a 50-yard field goal to John Hall thanks to lousy kickoff coverage and 30 yards worth of runs by Martin. But as soon as the Patriots got the ball back, off they went again. Undaunted, they drove 82 yards in nine plays. Nearly half those yards came on a right side screen toss to Smith. Three Kevin Faulk runs totalling 22 yards set up a Marc Edwards scoring run from four yards out. It was 16-14 Jets, but the Patriots had the steam.
The defense put the clamps on Testaverde, Martin and the Jets the rest of the way. The Jets went on a 12-play drive that ended in a punt thanks to a sack of Testaverde for a loss of eight yards by Richard Seymour. The final drive for the Jets, when all they needed was a field goal to win, ended at the Patriot 44 when Terrell Buckley intercepted a Testaverde toss on fourth and five.
Just prior to this defensive stand, the Patriots put together their game-winning rally. David Patten caught three passes for 45 yards, and Adam Vinatieri nailed a 29-yard field goal to put the Patriots up for good at 17-16.
Brady put the exclamation point on the day at game’s end. Needing a first down on third and two to kill the clock with 1:46 left in the game and the Jets out of timeouts, Brady faked a left end run to Smith, and kept the ball himself and ran right. He held the ball high, was hit at the 43 (where the first down stick was), and lunged the ball over the 43 as he went down. The measurement gave the Patriots the first down by a ball’s length, and the game with it. Belichick uncharacteristically jumped for joy when the referee signaled first down.
Brady’s final numbers were more Brady-ish. He finished with 20 of 28 passing for 213 yards. He failed to fire a touchdown pass, but he did not suffer any picks and had a passer rating of 93.3. His poise in the second half in leading his team back from a 13-0 hole is indicative of what the Patriots have in this guy, and the future of Patriot quarterbacking was well. This rally was a lot like the San Diego game, but with a lot more importance riding on it.
This is only the third win over the Jets by the Patriots post-Parcells. All three games were nailbiters, and no margin has been greater than three points in all Patriot wins. But to see the Patriots rally on the road against their chief nemesis with their whole season on the line makes this game the most important win for this team since the Tuna strolled out of town.
Belichick downplayed the importance of this game in the big picture, saying that this game will have nothing to do with the Cleveland game next week. Good answer, coach. Butch Davis won’t use it as locker room fodder. But your fans know better.
This win was huge. Gigantic. Awesome. And totally unexpected and improbable, made more such by the halftime deficit.
What may stick in the Jets’ craw is that they totally outplayed the Patriots in the first half but were only up 13. The goal-line stand in the first quarter, in which Martin was stopped at the two-yard line twice by Tedi Bruschi, might have been the real key to the Patriot win. If not, then at the very least it was the one play in the game that gave the Patriots the most important thing they needed at the time: hope.
With four games left on the schedule, and all of them perhaps winnable, the Patriots are in a great position right now. Their rally improved their playoff stature greatly, never mind what it did to their psyche. All they need to do is play tough in the trap games that lie ahead, put in a solid effort against Miami at home, and 11-5 is not a pipe dream.
It is not a pipe dream because there will be no post-Jet loss funk this year. The Patriots had not beaten the Jets in their second meeting since 1996, until today. Not one single Patriot player ought to feel anything but elated and confident right now (or, make that those players not currently suspended).
Enjoy this feeling right now. This is as good as it gets. Until January, that is.
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