When I picked this game to go 16-10 Patriots, I was mostly basing my assumptions on the last game they played, which the Patriots won, 19-10. Obviously I was wildly wrong. But so was everybody, right down to the weather forecasters.
I'd been expecting a wet, windy, sleety, down and dirty defensive slugfest, and instead what we got was a chilly, clear, instant classic featuring over 700 yards of offense between the two teams, and a combined 65 points when all was said and done.
It reminds me of when the Red Sox faced the Cincinnatti Reds for the first time since the 1975 World Series in 2003. After a similar back-and-forth battle that extended into extra innings, Nomar Garciaparra said he wished the game could've been called a tie.
But in the end there's a winner, and the Jets edged the Patriots in overtime with a field goal that sent their players screaming out onto the field to mob their kicker, and left a Gillette Stadium still full of New England fans to digest the anticlimax.
Keller caught the ball about fourteen yards away, and was hit by Brandon Meriweather, but a tremendous second effort propelled him another couple of yards for the first down. After that, the Jets marched downfield with impunity, finally putting themselves in field goal position. By the time the Jets had crossed the 50, I knew the game was probably lost.
Would Rodney Harrison have smacked Keller in the mouth more effectively? Maybe. Would Adalius Thomas have been "sucked up" by the tight ends on that play, leaving a clear passing lane from Favre to Keller? Maybe. Woulda coulda shoulda. It could go on forever.
And, after all, I'd thought the same thing when the Jets finally broke the Patriots' spirit in the south end zone for their final touchdown of regulation, after a ridiculous nine downs inside the Patriots 20, thanks in part to holding penalties on Mike Vrabel and James Sanders. And they'd come back to score the unlikeliest of all touchdowns with less than 10 seconds left on the clock, kicking the extra point to tie the game at 0:01 and sending it into overtime.
So I waited and bit my lip while they set up for the kick, and behind me a Jets fan loudly talked about his mistrust of his kicker, Jay Feely, he of three-consecutive-misses fame. And a little, tiny sliver of hope, encouraged by the spectacular game-tying reception by Randy Moss I'd just seen to close out regulation, held on until the final moment.
But Feely made it, and aforementioned mob ensued, and I grumpily texted a couple friends on my way out among a mix of Jets and Pats fans (one of the most annoying things about the New York / Boston rivalries--we're just so accessible to each other), "The worst thing about losing to the Jets in overtime is walking out of your own stadium with gloating Jets fans doing that STUPID chant."
What an anticlimax it was, in the end. What a letdown. It's much more frustrating to lose a game like that than the blowout I thought it was going to be midway through the first half. To see the Patriots claw their way back from 24-6, and then 31-24 with just one second left on the clock, and then lose...
But once my initial frustration wore off, there was much to be proud of and encouraged by about the Patriots.
It's customary not to use injuries as an excuse, but that's for the team and the coaches. As fans, we can talk about the injuries all we want, and let's face it, this is a decimated Patriots defense that played heroically last night against a potent offense led by a Hall of Fame quarterback.
Three linchpins of the defense at each level of the field were inactive for this game: Rodney Harrison at safety, Adalius Thomas at linebacker and Ty Warren on the line. Yet a rookie, Jerod Mayo, put in a spectacular night at linebacker last night, with 16 tackles and four assists, and every one of his hits rattled my teeth on the third deck. He played with the ferocity of Harrison and the intelligence and versatility of Thomas.
Most memorable of all was when he stuffed Thomas Jones at the 1 during the goal-line struggle at the end of the fourth quarter. The Jets had been attempting passing plays to push the ball into the end zone most of the time until then, and when they tried to run Jones up the gut, he was met with a violent change of direction while leaping over the pile, courtesy of Mayo. I was hundreds of feet above the field and closer to the opposite end zone, but I saw Jones' head snap back as Mayo flung him like a rag doll back behind his own line of scrimmage. Needless to say, that kid is a keeper.
As is Matt Cassel. I'm glad I didn't join with the boo-birds around Week 3, because I'd be feeling pretty foolish right now. Is Cassel Tom Brady? Course not. Never will be. But what he did last night was its own kind of amazing. Like being the first player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to total at least 400 passing yards and 60 rushing yards in a game, something Brady would absolutely never do, because Brady would never get away with 60 yards rushing if there were actually 11 defenders on the field. As Matt Light likes to say affectionately of Brady, "Tommy couldn't run out of sight if you gave him two days."
Cassel is a different animal--not only quicker on his feet when he tucks the ball and runs, but with a tendency to throw off-balance while running to elude the pass rush, like he did on that amazing touchdown at the very end of the game. He's also showing more of a Brady-like ability to step up in the pocket these days, but their style is very different. Brady takes a cool step or two here and there, and is better at checking down receivers. He's also more accurate--there were also a few times, like an overthrow to a wide-open Randy Moss in the third quarter, that had us demanding, "Where's Brady when you need him?" But Cassel is developing his own weapons. And he's got more guts than any player I've ever seen.
Think about it. Try to think of something you haven't done since high school. Now try to think about doing it at a professional level, starting, oh, right this minute, in front of a vigilant and highly critical audience. It's like someone who last had a leading role in a high school musical suddenly starring on Broadway. And to do it even passably well? Let alone showing the kind of improvement and maturity Cassel has from week to week? Nothing short of astonishing, and not something we had any right to just expect.
Major props also to Randy Moss, who has mostly shown patience while not getting the ball, which shows he's matured quite a bit since Minnesota. And he made what is sure to be among the most memorable catches of his career for that last touchdown at the end of the game, planting his feet and snatching the ball up with those flypaper hands of his, tilting and falling over and over on the Jumbo-Tron as the refs reviewed the touchdown call and the crowd roared louder and louder for each of the slow-motion replays. All of this while being absolutely molested by Ty Law (who was holding Moss all night when he was matched up against him, though the refs' flags remained superglued to their pockets).
In the end, loss and all, I'm proud of what we have in New England. I'm proud of the players who toss aside all excuses and play with such heart and determination each week. I'm proud of the coaching staff that makes it happen. And it bears repeating--I am so, so proud of Matt Cassel.
That's probably the best you can hope to be able to say the day after a bitter division rival knocks your team out of first place.