EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Perhaps it was fitting that a tumultuous week of change ended with a tumultuous victory at Giants Stadium for the New England Patriots.
The week began with the depature of wide receiver Deion Branch, a moment that seemed to stun many of the Patriots' core players like defensive end Richard Seymour and quarterback Tom Brady. But what was important yesterday was not how the week began but how it ended. It ended in what has become a Patriot trademark, a gritty 24-17 victory over the scrappy New York Jets that came only because New England's players did for the second week in a row what they do best. They refused to buckle.
When you nearly blow a 24-0 third-quarter lead and then have a chip-shot field goal that would have iced the game blocked, it is hardly a time for celebration. These are hard times for the Patriots, as they try to rediscover who they are and what they are capable of in the face of all the offseason changes that culminated in the stunning loss of Branch after a contract dispute degenerated into the NFL Network's version of the "Jerry Springer Show".
But the fact remains that even with all the doubt that seems to have encircled this team at the moment, it is still 2-0, winner of two exceedingly close games in the face of off-field distractions and on-field worries. Last week it was done primarily with defense. This weekend it was the offense that twice did what it needed to do at critical moments. It turned a botched 10-yard punt by the Jets' Ben Graham just before halftime into a 50-yard touchdown drive in the final 47 seconds for what would prove to be the most critical points scored all day, and then launched a final drive at the end of the game that put the Jets in a vise they could not escape.
Instead of leaving the field trailing, 10-0, at the half and feeling good about themselves, the Jets instead limped off down 17-0. No surprise then that they gave up a score on New England's opening drive in the third quarter, forgetting for a moment that nothing had yet been settled if they didn't waver.
After that, New York scored three straight times to make a game of it, only to then watch helplessly as New England's offense took over the ball with 9:20 to play and held it for 8:15 before rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski's 29-yard field goal that would have put the game away was blocked with 1:05 left on the clock.
This was not an ideal situation, but its severity had been lessened by two things -- the offense had eaten up most of the clock and all of the Jets' remaining timeouts, having forced them to use all three by converting three third downs by a yard each time. That is not perfection, but it is what Ernest Hemingway would call grace under pressure. Boxing trainer Eddie Futch would have called it simply being a professional.
Whatever it was, it left the Jets at their 9-yard line with 65 seconds to play, no timeouts, and 91 yards to travel. In other words, they were left with desperation, and you do not often beat the Patriots, even this depleted version, playing out of desperation.
``We did two out of three things that we have to do to win," former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham said of the Jets after their loss ended with a Tedy Bruschi interception of a Hail Mary throw from Chad Pennington. ``The Patriots know this. That's kind of their thing. You've got to be tough. You've got to be physical. And you've got to be smart. We were physical and we showed a lot of resiliency, especially in the second half, but we were not smart. I think that's the difference between their team and ours."
It is not smart to blow most of a 24-point lead. It is not smart to get a field goal blocked that would have put the game away. It is not smart to give up three straight scores when you have a team in position to choke the life out of it. But what was smart was recognizing the moments when the game truly was being decided. Moments like those final 47 seconds of the first half, when they capitalized on a Jets' error in the kicking game to turn a tight lead into a wider one. And moments like those throughout the final eight-minute drive.
Three times they got exactly what they needed to keep the ball and the clock moving, including a 6-yard completion to Reche Caldwell on a third and 5 when Brady changed Caldwell's route at the line of scrimmage after realizing the one called would have been fruitless. Smart players get the yardage they need, even if they need the help of an exceedingly smart quarterback to do it.
``This quarterback is a whole 'nother level," Caldwell said. ``That wasn't the play called. He adjusted my route at the line of scrimmage and we got the first down. All I had to do was listen. I know his decision is the right decision."
Then, after Gostkowski's field goal attempt was blocked, it was the defense's chance to react in similarly intelligent fashion. It did not bemoan a missed kick, nor quiver at the realization that the Jets had scored the last three times they had the ball. No one kicked the dirt, or each other. Instead, they focused on the only thing they had control over. The situation they were in.
``What we do a good job of is staying in the moment," said Bruschi, who ended the moment with his leaping interception as time was running out. ``We're in the huddle recapping the situation. We knew what the situation was. Nobody was let down. We've learned to expect everything, so all we said was, `What's the situation now? How long do they have to go?'
``You can't panic. You can't say, `They should have made that kick.' You have to expect everything and move on. You can't dwell on what could have been. You deal with what's right now."
What's right now is that they are 2-0 and lead the AFC East by a game. What's right now is they have troubles, some caused by personnel decisions over which these players had no control, and so they put them out of their mind and move on to what they do have control over -- themselves.
``Just keep going," center Dan Koppen said of the offense's mindset on the final drive. ``Don't look up. Don't look at the clock. Don't worry about what's already happened. Just get hats on hats. I like the way we've stepped up the last two weeks. For us to perform that well late in a game is a good feeling. We've still got a long way to go, but we responded pretty well that last drive. I think we've got a lot of gutsy guys on this team."
Time will tell if guts and smarts can produce glory, but for now they have produced a 2-0 record. Even with all their problems and with all the doubt that exists among them about the parts they are missing, that is all they could do for now. It is enough for the moment, and the moment, they understand, is all they have.
``To be the kind of team we want to be when we smell blood, we've got to finish [teams off]," Seymour lamented. ``We didn't finish on either side of the ball. We let them back in the game. We didn't seem to have a sense of urgency when we needed it. I'm not sure how good we'd be against a playoff-caliber team right now.
``Can we keep winning with all the talent we've lost? That's a good question. We'll find out. The one thing I do know is we're resilient. We'll see how things play out. We definitely have to play better, but you take it game by game and see where you are at the end."
At the end of two weeks they're 2-0, which is as good as they could be even if they haven't yet been playing as well as they think they should be.
``You can't throw four years of offense at some new guys," Brady said. ``I'm trying to get used to the new guys. I'm trying to understand their strengths. They're getting used to me and the concepts of the offense. I don't think we have many [other] options, but at the end we found a way to complete pass after pass. That's the kind of execution we need. We needed a big drive at that time. Those third-down routes were big. We needed them."
And they got them. Got them by a slim margin but they got them. Like Matt Chatham, who now has been on both sides of this kind of game, said. Tough. Physical. Smart. Smart enough to beat the Jets, at least, which was as smart as they had to be on this Sunday afternoon.