This one was even better than the hype
FOXBOROUGH - Sometimes things happen on a football field that leave you confused and speechless.
Forget the 34-yard Jay Feely field goal that won this tremendously entertaining game. The question to ask is how was Dustin Keller left completely, totally, and utterly alone on third and 15 from the Jets' 15 when a stop would have put the Patriots in a great position to win the game?
How? How? How?
So, after all the talk and all the buildup to this game, the Jets did what they had to do. They beat the Patriots in the big showdown for supremacy in the AFC East. But if you can believe all you read and heard this week, their 34-31 overtime triumph slayed a dragon, exorcised a demon, and/or accomplished any other kind of cleansing effect the Jets felt they needed to have. According to this scenario, it's blue skies from now on. Tampa, here we come.
We'll see about that.
From a neutral viewpoint, this was a sensational football game. The Jets dominated the first half, but the Patriots got back into it with a succession of excellent defensive stops, plus the right arm of Matt Cassel, who passed for an even 400 yards (a career high - obviously) and three touchdowns, the last being a 16-yard bullet to Randy Moss, who made a textbook, stretched-out maneuver on Ty Law on the right side of the end zone with one second left in regulation.
Yup, one second.
It capped a rousing eight-play, 62-yard drive that had begun with 1:04 remaining and the Patriots plumb out of timeouts. Included in this beautiful march to the end zone were two of the most disciplined rush-to-the-ball lineups by a football team trying to milk the most out of a desperate situation you will ever see. I'm telling you. If they're smart, every high school and college coach in America will get their hands on the tape of that final minute of regulation, just to see how a smart football team is supposed to operate under duress. It was an absolute clinic.
There was, of course, no remote thought given to going for 2 and rolling that set of dice. The Patriots had already pulled off one successful 2-point conversion. But in this circumstance you just don't do that. That's reserved for coaches who've got very little to lose. But when you lose the coin flip and you never get your hands on the football in OT, it probably doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
"It's very frustrating," acknowledged Cassel. "You want to be out there with the ball in your hands. Offensively, we had our opportunities in the third quarter and we weren't able to take advantage of them. We left scoring opportunities out there."
"We missed some opportunities in the third quarter," confirmed coach Bill Belichick. "We could have closed the gap. But that's the way it goes."
The biggest lost chance came on the first New England possession of the second half. The Patriots had advanced to the Jets' 34 when Cassel hit tight end Benjamin Watson for what should have been a 12-yard gain to the 22. But Watson inexplicably fumbled the ball after being hit by Jets linebacker Eric Barton. It was an ankle tackle. The ball was never hit by anyone or anything, and it wasn't a jarring hit. Yet Watson lost control of it and Kerry Rhodes recovered.
Another blown opportunity came on a first-and-10 at the Jets' 38. Center Dan Koppen snapped the ball while Cassel was looking to his left. It turned into a whopping loss back at the New England 38. So much for that drive.
All this was taking place while the Patriots' defense was taking care of business. Brett Favre (26 of 33, 258 yards) and the Jets had their way for most of the first half, with a 92-yard kickoff return by the dynamic Leon Washington thrown in, but the Patriots must have made some significant adjustments at halftime because the Jets could gain only 15 yards total in the third quarter.
After trailing, 24-6, the Patriots finally got even at 24 when a Stephen Gostkowski 47-yard field goal capped a 31-yard drive that began with a Gary Guyton fumble recovery. The Patriots appeared to have all the Mo.
But this is when Favre showed that he still can be Brett Favre. After three pretty miserable possessions, the Jets were in rather desperate need of a professional drive, and that is exactly what they got. Favre took his team 67 yards in 14 plays, the drive consuming 7:06 on the clock. It was abetted by a pair of defensive holding penalties, but only after the Jets had already advanced to the New England 6.
But if Favre was the old gunslinger - we are still waiting, by the way, for the expected killer pick - Cassel was ready to show the world that his name means something, too. Taking over at the New England 33 with no timeouts, he drove the Patriots with precision and verve. It all came down to a fourth-down play at the Jets' 16 with eight seconds remaining. Cassel moved to his right, fired it to Moss, and watched as the great receiver made a great receiver play, extending himself to make the grab while keeping his feet in order.
Too bad he never touched the ball again.
But those are the rules of the game, and we all know the Patriots have benefited from them during their tyrannical rule of their division. For the past seven years, it had been the Patriots pulling out these games. Not this time.
This time it was Favre coolly taking the Jets from his 20 to the Patriots' 18 in 14 plays. Oh, the coulda/shoulda/wouldas of it all. For after a Pierre Woods sack on first down and an incompletion on second down, there was Favre, staring at third and 15 at his 15. One stop here and the Patriots would have the ball in good field position.
But there was Keller, a target all night. There was Keller with no one between himself and Wrentham. How? How? How?
That, not the winning field goal, was the game.
"They made more plays than we did," said Belichick. "Not many."
One was enough.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.