Games are played and myths are debunked, and the Patriots should know this as well as anyone. The Patriot Way is an effective philosophy, to be sure, and we all have every right to believe in it. But it has never been the only way.
The New York Jets have not won anything yet, but the events at Foxborough late yesterday and early last night should leave no doubt now that what has worked here over the last 10 years might not necessarily work somewhere else. It all depends on who you are, where you’ve been, where you are going. The Jets now are proof. The anti-Patriots came into Gillette Stadium and beat the Patriots by thumping their chests, buckling their chin straps and pounding their fists. They talked the talk and they walked the walk. The AFC East is now redefined entering next year, and perhaps beyond, because the Patriots now have a legitimate, full-fledged division rival that spits in their face.
And then wins.
Hate the Jets, if you’d like. Mock them. Frown upon their tactless and boorish behavior. You have every right. But do not dismiss them, not anymore, not after their coach and their quarterback outperformed each of yours on the once-sacred turf at Gillette Stadium, where the Pats are 16-0 over the last two regular seasons and 0-2 during the last two Januarys.
Classless as they are, the Jets are legit. The Jets are for real. The Jets are not frauds or pretenders any more than are the Patriots, who have lost their last three postseason games dating back to that devastating loss in the desert. The Jets are 4-1 in postseason play over the last two seasons. The Jets are participants in back-to-back AFC Championship Games. The Jets just came into Foxborough on the heels of a 45-3 beating last month and punched the Patriots in the face, demonstrating their resiliency and debunking those myths.
Defense still can win the NFL, it turns out. Imagine that. Balance counts for something after all. Of the four teams participating in the conference championship games next week – the Jets, Steelers, Bears and Packers – all four ranked in the top six in the NFL in points against. By contrast, the top six teams in scoring (the Patriots, Chargers, Eagles, Colts, Falcons and Raiders) all are sprouting roots on the sofa in anticipation of Super Bowl XLV. Four of those clubs were in the playoffs. Two were top seeds. All four had home-field advantage.
Their combined postseason record this playoff season: 0-4.
Deep down, many of us worried about that Patriots defense, against both the run and the pass. Combined, Jets running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene ran for 119 yards on 27 carries, an average of 4.4 yards per rush. Those were not garbage-time numbers. Quarterback Mark Sanchez completed 64 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and no interceptions, including a 58-yard strike to Jericho Cotchery at the one point in the game where the Patriots might have seized momentum.
Then there was Rex Ryan, who coached the way Bill Belichick normally does – smartly, shrewdly, tactically. The Jets were patient. The Jets controlled field position. The Jets dictated pace. Meanwhile, the Patriots faked a punt from their own 37-yard line with roughly a minute to play in the first half, even though they had possession to start the second half and trailed just 7-3. Instead of cutting his losses, Belichick got a little too bold at a time that called for discretion, turning a measly 7-3 deficit into a 14-3 hole.
Fine, so Patrick Chung dropped the snap the way Kevin Faulk juggled the pass in Indianapolis on fourth-and-2. The players get some blame, too. But all decisions are about risk and reward, and, well, were the Patriots really going to score a touchdown in the final minute of the half when they had done almost nothing for the first 29 minutes? Were they playing for a Shayne Graham field goal to make it 7-6? Wouldn’t they have been wiser to just punt and regroup at halftime rather to risk a deficit of 10-3 or 14-3?
Maybe that is hindsight. Maybe it is common sense. Maybe that is all an indication that the Patriots still have some work to do in terms of rebuilding their mystique, a process Belichick started in the earliest days of training camp.
Give the Patriots credit for one thing. In some ways, they, too, debunked a myth this season. As it turns out, you can rebuild on the fly and still be a Super Bowl contender. You just might not be able to win. The large majority of us regarded this as a dreaded bridge year when the Patriots entered training camp, and it would be easy to remind ourselves of that now. It’s just that the expectations changed so much along the way. The Patriots had a brutal regular season schedule and rolled to a 14-2 record, going unbeaten in their final eight games. They beat the Chargers in San Diego, the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Bears in Chicago. They beat the Ravens, Jets, Packers and Colts in Foxborough. They beat anyone and everyone.
Along the way, the Pats even debunked the myth that they could not win without Randy Moss, whom they cast off in favor of the more likeable, team-friendly and more consistent Deion Branch.
Now, at a time when the Patriots once demonstrated the value of their tenet above all others, questions again mount. Brady got sacked five times yesterday and last night. Sanchez was not sacked at all. Can New England really win without a pass rush? The Jets ran 29 times and threw it 25. Can the Pats win without a real running back? Brandon Tate was targeted down the field just once, the ball falling incomplete. Can the Pats win without a deep threat who at least warrants some attention?
In New England over the last 10 years, rightfully so, winning begot a philosophy. Philosophy begot myth. Myth has now been destroyed, or maybe it hasn’t, depending on what you believed in the first place.
After all, as much as anyone, Bill Belichick always believed in multiple ways to win.
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