The threat was real, but the streak remains intact. The 2003 Patriots extended their franchise record with their 11th straight win and moved a step closer to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a 21-16 takedown of the Jets last night before a national television audience and 77,835 at the Meadowlands.
The victory, combined with Kansas City's loss to Minnesota earlier in the day, gave the Patriots sole possession of first place in the AFC with one game remaining. If Indianapolis loses to Denver tonight, the Patriots clinch a first-round bye. Should the Patriots win Saturday, the road to the Super Bowl would go through Foxborough.
Not only are the Patriots the league's best team (it's true, whether you like it or not), they've also, with the help of the league's schedule makers, developed into fine poets. New England ends its most successful regular season in team history against Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy, and the Buffalo Bills Saturday at Gillette Stadium. New England began its most successful regular season in team history with a 31-0 loss at Buffalo. Thirteen victories and 14 games later, the Patriots have come full circle.
"Very, very ironic that they're our last game," Rodney Harrison said. "They come to us after they beat our heads in and really embarrassed us. We're really looking forward to playing them."
Until now, they've resisted looking back at the opener. Saturday they'll be looking for revenge. But then again, "If they come up to Foxborough and smash our heads in again, what difference does it make?" guard Damien Woody said.
It was again the Patriots' defense that made the difference. The Patriots (13-2) intercepted Jets quarterback Chad Pennington five times, including one Willie McGinest returned 15 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Patriots a lead they would hold for the rest of the evening. Another of Pennington's picks, by Tedy Bruschi, led to New England's first touchdown. Still another, Ty Law's pick in the end zone in the third quarter, ended a Jets scoring threat. Safeties Harrison and Eugene Wilson also had interceptions.
"Getting those scores early, that was important," coach Bill Belichick said. "We were able to play most of the game from ahead, which was good."
Bruschi's leaping interception over the middle on New York's second play from scrimmage gave the Patriots possession at the Jets' 35. On the next play, Tom Brady and David Givens collaborated on a 35-yard touchdown, giving the Patriots a 7-0 lead 48 seconds into the game.
New England did not score a touchdown on its first possession in its first 13 games. The Patriots have done it two weeks in a row.
Givens would later catch his team-leading fifth touchdown of the season, a 5-yarder on the first drive of the third quarter.
The Patriots' early lead didn't last long, however. Actually, it did. About 9:20. Pennington responded by directing the Jets on a 16-play, 83-yard drive that ended with his 1-yard touchdown run. The Patriots had the play-action pass covered well on third and goal but Pennington kept rolling out until he reached the end zone.
McGinest broke the 7-7 tie with his interception return 1:26 into the second quarter. On third and 2 from his 15, Pennington tried to hit Curtis Conway on a slant. McGinest, in perfect position, used his 6-foot-5-inch frame to leap and deflect the pass. A la Asante Samuel in Game 3, McGinest caught the deflection and took it to the end zone. It was the Patriots' league-leading sixth defensive touchdown this season.
With 1:55 to go before intermission, the Jets took over at their 25. Eighty-four seconds later, they were at New England's 5, but the Jets has to settle for Doug Brien's 29-yard field goal and a 4-point deficit at halftime.
Pennington, who scored both New York touchdowns on runs of 1 and 10 yards, never had thrown more than two interceptions in any of his first 26 games (19 starts). The Jets' five turnovers equaled a third of their giveaways through their first 14 games -- 15, the second fewest in the league.
The previous time the Patriots faced Pennington, he picked them apart, passing for 285 yards and three touchdowns. That was last year, before Bill Belichick overhauled his secondary. In the rematch, Pennington just got picked. And picked. And picked.
"We tried to disguise a lot, move around a lot," Harrison said. "To be honest with you, you can disguise all you want against good quarterbacks, but it comes down to guys making plays."
Antowain Smith carried 18 times for a season-high 121 yards -- New England's first 100-yard rusher in 22 games. Smith broke runs of 30 and 23 yards, his longest of the season.
"It's all about attitude," Woody said. "That's one area they're deficient at on defense, is rush defense [31st in the league coming into the game], so that's one area you want to go after them in. Everybody across the board did a good job of getting after guys."
"We were just able to get on blocks and stay on blocks and give Antowain a chance to find the holes," center Dan Koppen said. "He found them, ran hard, and broke tackles."
The Jets failed to break New England's streak of 20 consecutive victories in games they led at halftime. Pennington's second touchdown, with 12:11 to go, made it 21-16, New England. The 2-point conversion failed. New England intercepted Pennington twice more in the fourth quarter.
"As always, we're happy to win," Belichick said. "It wasn't perfect, but it was a good, solid effort against a Jets team that played hard . . . A division game on the road, to be able to come out of here with a win, there's definitely a sense of accomplishment."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.