Adjustments paid off in return game
FOXBOROUGH — It was Super Bowl XLII all over again.
Instead of Glendale, Ariz., Patriots fans filed into Gillette Stadium expecting to see a coronation.
And, again, they witnessed a funeral.
R.I.P 2010 New England Patriots, 28-21.
The cause of death was eerily similar to three years ago: failure to match the improvement exhibited by a foe defeated in the regular season.
Sure, it wasn’t exactly the same. The Patriots squeaked by the New York Giants at the Meadowlands, 38-35, to close a perfect 16-0 regular season. Then the Giants harassed perhaps the greatest offense in league history into an uncharacteristically poor performance with an avalanche of quarterback sacks, hits, and tight coverage in a 17-14 Super Bowl victory.
Yesterday, the Patriots faced a Jets team they had beaten, 45-3, about five weeks earlier.
While the Patriots came in with a similar attack again, the Jets altered their game plan, tightened their coverages, and left quarterback Tom Brady looking confused, bewildered, and not confident again.
Just like three years ago.
And now the Patriots’ season is over. No ring. No Super Bowl appearance. Not even one postseason victory. That makes three straight years without one. Meanwhile, the Jets are headed to their second straight AFC Championship game. And Mark Sanchez has four postseason victories since Brady’s last.
“I just think we didn’t play well or coach well,’’ Bill Belichick said. “We didn’t do anything well enough. We gave up too many points, didn’t score enough, didn’t have good field position. We just didn’t do a good job.’’
And the Jets were exceptional. As bad as they were Dec. 6 — and it was an embarrassing display of football and overthought game plans — they were just as tremendous this time around.
Give credit where credit is due. The Jets, from general manager (and Needham native) Mike Tannenbaum to coach Rex Ryan and coordinators Brian Schottenheimer and Mike Pettine, simply outdid Belichick and Co.
And as hard it is to believe that a group of professionals can simply play better and produce a result that is 180 degrees different, the Jets insist they did.
“The last time we were up here they caught us on our heels, they came out and jumped on us early,’’ said linebacker David Harris. “We came out with no passion, no intensity, and before we knew it, we were down, 21-0, and it snowballed from there. We knew all week that if each man did their job, we would be successful. And that’s what happened.’’
The Jets did do some things differently on defense. In a scheme that was almost a carbon copy of the one used by the Browns in their 34-14 beatdown of the Patriots Nov. 7 — the last time the Patriots tasted defeat — the Jets were able to put doubt in Brady’s mind. It’s probably no coincidence that the Browns’ defense was coordinated by Rob Ryan, the twin brother of Rex Ryan. It’s obvious the two compared notes.
“Clearly you’ve got to mix it up,’’ Rex Ryan said. “You can’t just give them one thing all the time. Mix your coverages, mix your blitzes, mix your pressures, all that kind of stuff. Against these great quarterbacks, that’s what you have to do.’’
Just like the Browns, the Jets often had one down lineman and had everyone else roaming the line of scrimmage with the aim of not giving away their coverage to Brady before the snap, and to confuse the offensive linemen with their assignments. That moment of hesitation makes a huge difference and contributed to Brady being sacked a season-high five times (two by end Shaun Ellis, who also loomed large in the Jets’ Week 2 victory over New England).
Even when the Jets weren’t sending extra people, the perception of pressure was in Brady’s mind as he moved, ducked, and pump-faked without people around him. The only people missing were Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan, and Osi Umenyiora.
“I think they spun the dial pretty well on their pressures and coverages,’’ Brady said. “I think we had some opportunities to make some plays that we really didn’t. It just felt like we were fighting hard out there to gain yards.’’
The Jets made two wise switches in their coverage. After matching lanky cornerback Antonio Cromartie on Deion Branch the first time around, they put shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis on Branch. He caught just five of the 10 passes thrown his way, and most came in the second half against zone coverage.
And Ryan and Pettine, especially in the second half, mixed in zones that featured three linemen and eight in coverage.
The result was Brady either handing off or checking down on the 14-play, 48-yard drive that produced no points and took up 7:45 of the clock with the Patriots trailing, 21-11.
Has there ever been a more fruitless and frustrating drive in franchise history? Put it this way: the drive had Donovan McNabb’s full endorsement.
The Jets also played much more physical with the Patriots receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez hurt the Jets in the earlier games. Other than Gronkowski’s 37-yard reception in the second half, the two combined for 32 yards. And running back Danny Woodhead averaged just 8.7 yards per reception — about 3 yards off his regular-season average.
“In Week 13, we were there but we weren’t quite there,’’ Revis said. “Covering guys, we might have been here [3 feet away]. Going against Tom Brady, you can’t have this much space with his receivers. You have to latch onto him and get closer to him and I think the coaches did a great job of just preaching for us to play tighter coverage this game. It’s a smaller window for him to throw the ball.’’
Offensively, the Jets accomplished something few teams have against the Patriots — they didn’t turn the ball over. It was the fourth game the Patriots’ defense failed to get a turnover. They lost three of those games and needed overtime to beat the Ravens in the other.
Sanchez, who has been a turnover machine since Week 5, played solidly and didn’t make the big mistake. The Jets made the Patriots, who had an average field position of the 28-yard line, drive the length of the field time after time. The Jets’ average start was the 45.
The one quarterback to turn the ball over was Brady — after 339 attempts without an interception. The Jets failed to capitalize on the miscue because of a missed field goal, but it gave them a huge boost of confidence.
“Yeah, I think it did,’’ said veteran backup quarterback Mark Brunell. “It showed that he’s not perfect, that he makes mistakes.’’
Mix in the dropped fake punt by Patrick Chung — which was converted into a touchdown — and that’s about as good as it gets as far as these Patriots being charitable.
“We knew two things: we couldn’t make mistakes, and we’d have to take advantage of mistakes that they made, and that’s what happened,’’ Brunell said.
With Brady showing mortality, the Jets knew they were in a good position. And confidence can mean everything.
Just like it did for the Giants.
And once again, the Patriots were left stunned — and done.