FOXBORO - If we learned only one thing from Sunday's 28-21 win by the Jets in New England, it's that you never, EVER know what's going to happen in a playoff football game.
New York's stunning victory suggested that the prior three months of football had never existed; it was as if time had been turned back to August, when the Jets were the team going places and the Patriots were too thin to compete.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have lost three straight playoff games and their dynastic glory days seem to be more distant than ever -- this type of thing used to happen to other franchises, but not to New England.
If the Jets can win next Sunday, they'll have eliminated three future Hall of Fame QBs, on the road, in a row. Amazing stuff.
Here are 10 things we learned from their win over the Patriots, arguably the second biggest victory in franchise history.
1. Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan? Ryan, in a first-round TKO. A coach with a lesser pedigree would be worried about his job after a defeat like this one. While Belichick has no such worries, he was absolutely out-coached in this one, just as he completely out-coached Ryan in the previous Foxboro meeting.
While the specifics of the whos and hows of the end-of-the-first-half fake punt were still a bit sketchy in postgame, there was little doubt that it was a disastrously bad play call. With less than 2 minutes to go and one timeout, even a successful fake was hardly a guarantee of points before the end of the half.
And an unsuccessful fake? It led to seven points the other way, and left the Patriots in a hole they couldn't dig out of.
Add in New England's lack of execution, an incorrect challenge, the inability to solve New York's zone defense and, in the end, the final score, and this has to rank as one of the Hall of Fame coach's darkest days.
Ryan's team, meanwhile, just played last week. And he was working against a great coach who had two weeks to get ready. Yet Ryan's team was clearly better prepared, played smarter, mistake-free football (three penalties, zero turnovers), and entered the game with a great defensive game plan that confused Tom Brady and the NFL's best offense.
2. Mark Sanchez is shaping up as a Patriots killer.
Sanchez finished with a passer rating of 127.3 Sunday (16 of 25, 194 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT). But it'd be tough for anyone who saw the game to suggest that it was an individualy sterling effort. His receivers turned in fantastic performances, including Santonio Holmes' remix of his
Super Bowl-winning touchdown grab, and Sanchez failed to make several throws to open men.
The Jets also put in a great effort on the offensive line: the Patriots failed to get even a sniff of Sanchez. In short, just about any competent QB might have put up a good rating with the same performances around him.
With that said, these moments are becoming awfully common
for Sanchez against the Patriots. His 127.3 rating Sunday night is the second highest mark of his career, trailing only his performance last year against Cincinnati (139.4), also in the playoffs (he attempted only 15 passes that day).
His most efficient regular-season game? That effort came against the Patriots, too, during New York's 28-14 win back in September (21 of 30, 220 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 124.3 rating).
Sanchez has plenty of help around him, as we saw Sunday night. But he's also proving to be a young guy not afraid of the big moment. He's 4-1 in the postseason and just knocked off Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive weeks. You don't do that with bad play at quarterback.
He also came up with a huge signature drive Sunday. The Patriots had just scored a touchdown and 2-point conversion late in the third quarter to make it a game again at 14-11. Then Sanchez and the Jets quickly slammed the door on the next possession: a 4-yard pass to Dustin Keller, a short toss to Jerricho Cotchery that turned into a 58-yard back breaker, another pass to Cotchery, this one for 7, and then Holmes' spectacular 7-yard TD reception.
Sanchez got plenty of help with two great plays by his wideouts. But with the game on the line he was 4 for 4 for 76 yards and delivered a huge touchdown drive that killed New England's momentum and effectively ended the team's 14-2 season without a single playoff win.
Sanchez in two short years has become the quarterback the Jets have desperately needed: one who turns in his best performances against the Patriots.
3. Tom Brady's rep took a huge hit with this loss. Brady's MVP seasons have had very unhappy endings and the quarterback was visibly shaken as he walked into his postgame press conference, looking for all the world like a man trudging toward an execution. Asked how he felt, whether he was in shock, he actually used the same answer from last year after the loss to Baltimore -- that it was like being on a treadmill going 10 miles an hour, and having the power turned off.
Brady was one of the guys who hit the off switch. His offense came out slicing easily through the Jets on their first drive, effortlessly marching from the New England 16 to the New York 28. And then, for the first time since October, for the first time in a record 340 attempts, Brady threw an interception. You know the importance of interceptions
, especially in the playoffs.
And it wasn't just an ordinary interception. It was a poorly thrown ball
on a short pass attempt, over the head of BenJarvus Green-Ellis right into the hands of linebacker David Harris (who also had a game-high 12 total tackles). It might have been Brady's worst pass of the season. And it killed New England's early momentum. The offense never again looked as good as it did up until that pick.
Brady doesn't deserve all the blame for the defeat, but he also didn't have an MVP game. It was a sad repeat of the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, where Brady certainly didn't give the game away, but also failed to take it on his shoulders and win it.
Coupled with last year's woodshead beating loss at home to Baltimore in the the wildcard round, that's three games in a row in the postseason in which Brady and his offense simply did not get it done. Brady's reputation as the clutchest of clutch playoff quarterbacks is sullied after these three straight playoff losses.
The final four now boasts three quarterbacks ready to surpass him as the NFL's most clutch playoff quarterback, if they haven't already: Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is 9-2
in his postseason career and two wins away from claiming his third Super Bowl ring since Brady last won one; Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers is putting up
never-before-seen playoff numbers and is likely to be the NFC's quarterback in Dallas in three weeks; and Sanchez's rep is growing bigger by the moment.
4. Antonio Cromartie and the New York secondary got the last laugh. New England receiver Wes Welker might have made jokes at Rex Ryan's expense during the lead up to the game. But the Jets defense got the last laugh. They looked confused in the 45-3 loss to the Patriots back in December. But New England's pass offense looked just as confused Sunday.
Darrelle Revis led the charge for New York -- while making this defense look a lot like the one that nearly got the Jets to the Super Bowl a year ago. But Cromartie held his own at the other corner and certainly wasn't set to a torch like Patriots-bashing players had been in the past (Freddie Mitchell is still trying to recover).
New York's defense surrendered few big plays, save for a pair of long passes to tight ends Rob Gronkowski (37 yards) and Alge Crumpler (28 yards). They stifled the league's highest-powered offense, and made it look just plain bad for large stretches of the game. No small feat. And now they can laugh, at New England's expense, all the way into the AFC title game at Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Welker stood on the sidelines at the start of the game, allegedly a punishment for his stand-up routine earlier in the week. It was another curious decision by Belichick.
5. The Patriots won as a team, and in the end they lost as one. All of the new names that the football world marveled at during the 14-2 regular season seemed like illusions as the Patriots got bounced from the playoffs.
The starting lineup featured 13 players that didn't start in last year's playoff game. And for the first time since preseason the Patriots looked like what they are -- a very young football team and a work in progress that all the off-field evidence suggested was in place.
New England had been so good at all the little things during the season that it obscured a key fact -- that without doing the little things well, they really didn't do the big things well. They didn't make a lot of plays downfield, they didn't do well against deep passing attacks, and they fed on other people's mistakes.
6. New England's offensive line picked the wrong time to revert to Super Bowl XLII form.
It was easy to overlook the Patriots even when they were sitting at 6-1, because they just didn't look right on offense or defense. But the return of Logan Mankins really solidified things all across the offensive line, and became the team's signature strength. The Patriots ended the year No. 1 on our Offensive Hog Index
. In fact, they held that position most of the season.
And then, Sunday. The Jets registered five sacks and they did it largely by dropping plenty of players into coverage and sending only three rushers most of the night. In some ways it was a repeat of a win by that other New York team, the Giants, back in Super Bowl XLII, who dominated in pass rushing situations with only its defensive front four.
The Patriots used some runs in passing situations and reverses to run for 113 yards on 28 carries. But the Jets clearly got the better of the battles and set the tone for the upset in the trenches.
7. Shaun Ellis played like a man scorned.
When a spot at defensive end opened u
p in the Pro Bowl, Ellis must have figured he'd get the nod. He's a huge factor on New York's defensive line, and one of the great 3-4 defensive ends in the league
Instead, Pittsburgh's steady Brett Keisel was selected despite missing six games -- and despite meaning significantly less to his team than Ellis does.
Ellis had two tone-setting first-half sacks on Brady and really caused havoc for much of the game. He's one of the league's best-kept secrets, but they surely know in the New York locker room how much he means. And at New York's current pace, his deserved trip to Hawaii might get postponed by more pressing business.
8. Reverse the uniforms, and the game played out just like you'd have expected. Weren't the Jets supposed to be the ones making mistakes, getting burned in the secondary and playing like the cold, windy weather was Kryptonite?
Instead, the Jets played like the Patriots had all year. They won the turnover battle 1-0, they caused three fumbles, and they took advantage of short fields to get easy touchdowns. They were spectacular in the red zone, they played to more than the sum of their parts, they got contributions from all across the roster and they, in the words of Santonio Holmes as he came down the tunnel, "took care of business."
9. New England's defense just didn't have the horses. Early in the season, the Patriots defense just didn't look good enough to get this team much past 10 or 11 wins. Then, down the stretch, with the offense setting a great tone, the defense seemed to come back to life.
But there were plenty of chinks in the armor: the Patriots don't have a pass rusher (something the final four teams boast in bunches), they surrendered 5.55 yards per play (25th) and they were the NFL's worst team on third downs all year, allowing opponents to convert an incredible 47.4 percent
All three problems came back to haunt them against the Jets: the Patriots did not register a single sack, they were torched for 5.8 yards per play and they allowed New York to convert 6 of 13 third downs (46.1%), almost exactly the NFL-worst average they allowed during the regular season.
They also failed to stop the Jets in the red zone – four touchdowns in five trips inside the 20. In the end, those problems put too much pressure on a Patriots offense asked to contend with a good New York defense playing some of its best football of the season.
10. It wasn't the upset of the century, but it was the upset of the 2010 playoffs and a top-20 playoff upset of the Super Bowl era. With apologies to the Saints' road loss to Seattle, New York's win is now the game that has defined the 2010 playoffs.
Their victory was a prime example of how a team that dominated a regular season can fall apart in a hurry in the postseason. In the 1970s, 1980s and in to the 1990s, teams that dominated the regular season like the Patriots did in 2010 almost always at least got to the Super Bowl.
The salary cap changed things, though, and while parity is a myth -- after all, the Steelers, Colts and Patriots are there every year -- the difference between good teams and bad teams has definitely narrowed. No one has the type of superteam that the Cowboys or Steelers might have had in the 1970s, or the 49ers had in the 1980s and 90s.
New England showed that they just don't make 14-2 teams like the used to, and the Jets showed that they are pretty special. Road wins over Peyton Manning and Tom Brady back to back? Those moments don't come around every day.