FOXBOROUGH - Tom Brady would deny it if he were asked, and Deion Branch denied it on his behalf when asked.
But all signs pointed to yesterday’s showdown for the Patriots against the Jets being personal to Brady, meaning a little bit more to him than the rest of the games on the schedule.
And why wouldn’t it? Last January, in the run-up to their playoff game in New England, New York coach Rex Ryan took swipes at Brady, knocking his preparation when Brady used time during the team’s bye week to spend a few days in New York and take in a Broadway play.
According to Ryan, Peyton Manning never would have done such a thing.
Then Ryan’s Jets backed up his words, knocking New England out of the playoffs by winning at Gillette Stadium.
So even though the Patriots posted a 30-21 win over the Jets yesterday, sending New York to its third straight loss while getting their fourth win of the season, Brady didn’t sound all that celebratory in his postgame news conference.
“I thought we could have done a lot better offensively, but it was a good win. We won at home, that’s important, a division game and we’re 4-1,’’ he said flatly.
Asked about whether he relishes facing Ryan, Brady wouldn’t bite. “One week it’s him, one week it’s the Bills’ coordinator, one week it’s the Chargers,’’ he said. “Whoever is on the schedule, that’s who we’re going to get ready for. I thought we did a decent job at times but I thought obviously we left a lot of points out there.’’
Rough translation: Brady didn’t just want to beat Ryan and the Jets, he wanted to bury them under an avalanche of points.
It didn’t work out that way, of course, as it was evident fairly early on that yesterday’s affair wouldn’t be a repeat of the 45-3 drubbing the Patriots gave the Jets late last regular season.
New England won the toss, with Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, goalie Tim Thomas, and the Stanley Cup as honorary captains - the entire Bruins roster was on the field for a pregame ceremony, getting to run onto the field like the Patriots do - but elected to defer, as is its custom.
The Patriots’ first possession died after the first play, an 11-yard completion to Welker. Their second was a bit more successful: Welker picked up a bunch of after-the-catch yards after making safety Jim Leonhard miss, and the 32-yard gain put New England well into New York territory.
That’s when the offense tried to exploit the Jets’ weakness against the run. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (career-high 136 yards, 2 TDs) got the ball on four consecutive plays, gaining 8 yards on each of the first three carries. The fourth was a 3-yard touchdown, when the fourth-year back dragged defensive tackle Sione Pouha with him over the goal line.
The Jets struggled offensively to start the game, continuing a theme from their recent games, gaining a total of 29 yards over their first four drives, failing to record a first down on any of them.
They followed up the Patriots’ first touchdown with another three-and-out, with a pass called on third and 2. Mark Sanchez got happy feet looking for a receiver and tried to tuck it and run, only to be met by Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich, who stopped him for no gain.
The play technically went down as a sack, the first for the Patriots defense since Anderson had a garbage-time sack of Philip Rivers against the Chargers in Week 2.
“We’ve just got to convert,’’ Sanchez said. “Had some underneath passes; we’ve just got to connect. I don’t know the reason we came out so slowly. We probably had the best week of practice all year this week - guys were into it, we knew the plays, knew the game plan. It was frustrating. We’re going to have to work through this.’’
In yesterday’s New York Daily News, there was a report that receivers Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress, and Derrick Mason each went to Ryan separately in recent weeks to complain about offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s system. The team took to Twitter before the game to issue a denial and Ryan said after the game that he didn’t remember that happening.
New England increased its lead in the second quarter, getting some help via an unnecessary roughness call on Nick Bellore during a Welker punt return. The 15-yard penalty allowed the Patriots to start at the New York 44.
They were able to gain only 18 yards, but they got close enough for Stephen Gostkowski, who converted the 44-yard field goal try to give his team a 10-0 lead with 11:15 left in the first half.
New York then got on the board after a nearly eight-minute TD drive; Burress had a 19-yard catch early in the drive, his first of the game, and was booed by the crowd, which certainly remembered him from Super Bowl XLII, when as a member of the Giants he caught the winning touchdown.
The Patriots looked for all the world as though they were going to answer the score and head into the locker room at the break with their 10-point lead restored - and they’d be getting the ball back to start the second half - but it didn’t work out that way.
On second down from the 11-yard line, Brady (24 of 33, 321 yards) threw toward Aaron Hernandez, who returned after missing the previous two games with a sprained left MCL. The ball was right in Hernandez’s hands but he couldn’t complete the catch; the ball bounced up in the air and was intercepted by Antonio Cromartie.
It was the first time in his career Brady had thrown a red-zone interception at home in the regular season.
“I told [Brady], ‘My fault,’ and he said, ‘Forget it, let it go’,’’ Hernandez said. “I have to make that play. I will make that play.’’
New England almost didn’t score to start the third quarter after a pinpoint 73-yard catch-and-run from Brady to Welker gave the offense first down at the 7. On second down, Brady scrambled and hit Branch near the goal line. Linebacker Calvin Pace tackled Branch, knocking the ball out of his hands, and the ball was recovered by the Jets.
At least, that was the initial call. Coach Bill Belichick challenged the call, and it was overturned. Showing the faith he has in Branch, Brady went right back to him on the next play. With Cromartie covering him, Branch cut hard left in the end zone, leaving Cromartie behind, and was wide open for the touchdown catch.
Later in the quarter, again with an assist to longtime aide de camp Ernie Adams, Belichick pulled out his red flag again, this time after a pass play from Sanchez to Burress. The initial call was that Burress came down inbounds; Belichick won again, and the Jets were forced to punt.
The two overturned calls were among the biggest plays for the Patriots, part of a win that wasn’t a start-to-finish domination, but a win nonetheless.