Here was my impression of how this game would go, written for the NYT's Fifth Down football blog:
This game carries with it a big and obvious question: What will be the true impact of Tom Bradyís absence on the Jets / Pats rivalry? With Brady out, those who see the Patriotsí 2008 season as lost are naming the Jets as the team to beat in the A.F.C. East. But are things really so simple? Itís not as if the Patriots will be playing without a quarterback ó and while Brett Favre is a great addition to Gang Green, he is not necessarily the Brett Favre of old. I think this game will be closer and harder-fought than many people are anticipating, and that the teams remain well-matched. Brady being out of the equation sets up even more of a dogfight between Boston and New York this season than in previous years, but itís not an automatic coronation for the Jets. Ö Jets, 17-14 (in the final minutes).
Yep, you saw that right - I picked the Jets to win. Specifically, what I pictured was almost exactly how this game looked by the fourth quarter, a mix of field goals and TDs, and the Patriots on top by less than a touchdown. (I pictured them with 14 points to the Jets' 10 -- instead, with 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, it was Patriots 16, Jets 10.
Here is where - I guess because Brady's injury had me in that Murphy's-Law frame of mind - I pictured the Jets and Favre mounting a comeback, a dramatic win in front of their home fans, and another week of hearing people gloat about what happened to Brady and hate on Belichick. In retrospect, I'm still not sure if I was really expecting it, or just trying to gear myself up for it as the worst-case scenario.
And it's not like I don't miss Brady, won't miss him dearly until the moment he steps back onto the field in a Patriots uniform. But as it turned out, the way Brady's absence was felt in this particular game was more subtle than I think a lot of us -- myself included-- were anticipating. Maybe because we needed reminding that there are plenty of things Tom Brady doesn't do.
Tom Brady doesn't play special teams.† The Jets started most of their drives at their own 20. The Patriots started five drives in Jets territory.
Tom Brady does not run the ball. The running game helped keep the Jets offense off the field after that 16-10 score that felt so ominous to me, and the only Pats touchdown of the game was scored by Sammy Morris, who crowd-surfed over the Jets' defensive front on a third-and-goal play. Kevin Faulk made key plays, including a salvage of a tipped pass from Cassel for nine yards at the beginning of the second quarter, and motored for 22 yards on a screen pass in the third. Arguably, Brady would've converted more Red Zone plays into touchdowns, but...
Tom Brady does not play defense. Big-time credit is due to the Patriots defense, and, yes, to the defensive mind of Bill Belichick - as it is on the other side of the ball in Eric Mangini (their opposition has the potential to be far more fascinating on the field than in their soap opera off of it). Both teams stuffed one another in the red zone throughout the first half, and Adalius Thomas and Richard Seymour were like twin blocks of granite in the running game and long-armed nightmares for Favre when he dropped back. They let Favre make his own bed, sometimes, like when Brandon Meriweather delivered one of Favre's trademark interceptions in the third quarter. Other times they just swelled up, buckled down, and made the Jets pay for their mistakes. My prediction underestimated this defense, and for that I apologize.
Tom Brady does not block. Dan Koppen won a formidable battle with Jets DT Sione Puha as Cassel dropped back with about eight minutes to go in the third quarter, freeing Cassel to find Welker at the Jets 5, and setting up the Patriots' touchdown.
Tom Brady does not kick for field goals. Stephen Gostkowski scored most of the Pats' points today - and Cassel did well enough to put him in position. Instead of a Jets comeback in the fourth quarter, what we got was another Cassel drive and another Gostkowski 3-pointer for insurance.
Tom Brady did not make the Jets commit a million penalties. The Jets: 6 penalties, 60 yards, and they always seemed to come at some crucial time. The Pats: 2 penalties for 10 yards.
Of course, there's also another edge to this for the Patriots -
Tom Brady does not play DB. The Jets figured Rodney Harrison wouldn't match up well against Chansi Stuckey as they drove for the goal line at the beginning of the fourth quarter. They were right - Harrison fell down in front of Stuckey in the corner of the end zone, and the Jets scored easily. Meriweather obviously showed improvement over last week, and Ellis Hobbs had a few good plays (which he made sure to showboat about...sigh...), but Favre sometimes looked like the old gunslinger against this secondary.
Tom Brady does not play offensive line. Koppen's nice play to set up the touchdown notwithstanding, there were still times I loudly demanded of my TV† whether or not the real issue with this team was the QB or his lack of protection, especially when Matt Cassel got sacked on three consecutive drop-backs between the second and third quarters. I'm still worried about how he got up limping after one of the hits in the second quarter (He was probably shot up with something to get him back out on the field for the third quarter, and who knows what the implications might be for next week).
But the point is, these would be points of concern with or without Brady.
And so after a week of reports of the Patriots' demise, we were all reminded, I hope, that there are 52 other players on this team whether or not No. 12 is under center - and one of the all-time winningest coaches wearing a headset on the sideline. People were quick to point out this week that Belichick's under .500 without Brady - but most of that record comes from his tenure with the Cleveland Browns, almost a decade ago. He also is still the last person to lead that franchise to a postseason win, in 1994.
If anything, this game reminded me of the Patriots' style of play at the beginning of their Super Bowl run - back when they were impressive not for blowing teams out but for finding a different way to win each week. Back when Brady was "overrated", and "it was the system" that made him successful.
This game was 2001-style Patriots football, right down to the place kicker arguably being the MVP. If it was to provide us with any clue as to what the team would be like without Brady, it would seem that clue is to be found in how New England played before Brady was Brady - which was not all that long ago.
This is not to say we can declare any kind of victory after two weeks, any more than we could declare total defeat after one. In a way it has its own kind of excitement, this mutual uncertainty between the Pats and their AFC East rivals, which I don't think will really shake out until mid-season or later.
As a Pats fan, the games are taking on a different meaning. It's not that they didn't matter before, but this season a lot is at stake for the Patriots as they try to move on from 18-1 and SpyGate without the help of Brady.† For tonight, I'm just trying to enjoy being newly hopeful after an unexpected win.