|Rodney Harrison and the Patriot defense made things difficult for Jets QB Chad Pennington, who came on in relief. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)|
FOXBOROUGH - Here's a shock: Eric Mangini wasn't going anywhere near Spygate. Just a tough division game against a quality foe, you know?
"My emotions are related to the fact that the players prepared hard and fought hard and put themselves in a position to win against a very good football team," deadpanned the Jets mentor. "To me, it was a disappointment because of the opportunities we had today."
Four Jets trips inside the red zone generated zero touchdowns. That made for a very unpleasant trip back to Long Island.
There's no denying it. The Jets were the team fortunate enough to be on the schedule the day of the Great Nor'easter. As far as the defense was concerned, they can talk schemes all they want, but Mother Nature had a lot more to do with Tom Brady putting up third-string QB numbers (14 of 27, 140 yards, one interception, and, for the first time this season, no touchdowns). The weather was clearly an equalizer. It was a 12th man. It gave the Jets a real shot.
But 3 points on four trips inside the 20? That will be tough to live with.
"We worked hard and had some real opportunities to make it interesting," acknowledged Chad Pennington, one of three men to take snaps for the Jets on an eventful afternoon. "What it came down to were third downs and efficiency inside the red zone. It so often comes down to those things. If you're going to be 21 percent on third downs and not score when you get inside the red zone, it's hard to win that way."
Here's the deal on the QBs. Kellen Clemens started, but he went down less than five minutes into the game with what was described as a "rib injury" while being hit on a pass that resulted in a 5-yard interception return by Eugene Wilson.
From that point on, Mangini went with a two-headed quarterback deal, utilizing both deposed starter Pennington and third-year man Brad Smith. The former played enough to air it out 38 times (25 complete, for 186 yards), while the latter was employed as a change-of-pace option kind of guy.
"We like that package," Mangini explained. "It wasn't something related to Kellen's injury. It was in the game plan."
So throw that log on the fire, along with all the other off-the-wall stuff we've seen from innovative coaches in the past few weeks. Coaches are doing anything that comes into their heads in order to give the Patriots a different look, something - anything - to think about. (I can see the rampaging Dolphins winning the toss and going for the onside kick next week).
The Jets played hard, but anyone with an ounce of common sense knew the Jets would be ready to play. They were not exactly oblivious to all the stuff swirling about.
"All that Spygate, and all that stuff," pointed out safety Kerry Rhodes. "We were tired of hearing that on Monday. We heard enough on Monday for the whole week. So, yes, we were taking it personally. People were talking 70 points for them, not 50. But we pretty much held them in check."
"We knew coming in it was going to be a close game," maintained tight end Chris Baker. "We weren't worried about what everyone else was saying about what the score would end up being."
It's easy to say ex post facto you knew this, or knew that, but the one thing the Jets did know was that they were not going to offer themselves up as road kill. No way they were going down by four touchdowns, especially in bad weather.
In this year of 2007, losing to the Patriots is no disgrace. It's how you feel about yourself after you've lost to the Patriots that matters. And the Jets went away feeling frustrated that they had not done more to help themselves. They were able to make this about the New York Jets, not about the almighty New England Patriots, now 14-0 and master of the known pigskin universe.
"I thought we did a good job of moving around defensively and making Brady's checks harder," said Rhodes. "We made him go through a lot of progressions."
"We definitely let this one get away," declared Baker. "We were able to move the ball."
Until, of course, they got inside the 20.
"It's unfortunate in the grander picture that with how close this game was we weren't able to come away with a win," said Clemens.
I heard frustration and disappointment in their voices, but I heard no whining. Take, for example, the lost Jets touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The Jets trailed, 20-10, following a 34-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. But the ever-dangerous Leon Washington returned the kickoff 49 yards, to which was affixed a quite legitimate buckin' bronco tackle penalty. Three plays later, it was first and goal at the New England 7, and Pennington hit Justin McCareins in the back of the end zone for an apparent touchdown. It was, in fact, a remarkably similar play to the Jabar Gaffney game-winning TD against the Ravens.
But there was question about whether or not McCareins had full possession of the ball as he was getting his feet down. The play was reviewed and the touchdown was reversed. The Jets wound up with nothing as Mike Nugent's 35-yard field goal attempt was wide left.
McCareins took the decision like a man. "I knew it was going to be a tough decision," he said. "I thought I had it, but obviously not."
"To be honest," said Pennington, "from my vantage point I didn't think there was enough evidence to overturn it. But we still had opportunities after that."
The word "opportunity" came up a lot yesterday. The Eagles had an opportunity. The Ravens had an opportunity. The Steelers had an opportunity - for a half, anyway. But the Patriots are proving themselves to be just as capable of winning by doing the little things better than the other guy as they are of winning when Brady throws for five TDs. The brutal northeast December weather came and, by golly, maligned running back Laurence Maroney ran for 104 yards after all. And the defense made the requisite stops. And the Patriots matched the valiant Jets, blocked punt for blocked punt. Interesting, huh?
"The type of team we were playing," said McCareins, "you give them an inch, and a chance to win the game, and they're going to do what they're going to do."
The NFL is running out of opportunities.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.