New York Jets  

 

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jets make most of Patriots' OT decision in win

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It all happened so quickly Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers losing, the confusing coin toss, the New York Jets with the ball, the whole big jumble of weirdness that gave the Jets a rare chance to vanquish a perennial nemesis and control their playoff future.

So let's take it piece by piece. The Steelers lost to the Ravens 20-17, looking oddly disinterested in the process and imperiling their own wild-card hopes. That game ended right around the time the Jets and Patriots went out to midfield for the overtime coin toss, an action necessitated by the Jets first blowing a 17-3 lead and then a 20-13 lead with two minutes left in the game.

Every game, all season

But the Patriots won the toss, and this had all the makings of a few Tom Brady passes to Rob Gronkowski to set up a field goal from the best kicker in the game, Stephen Gostkowski.

Except Matthew Slater said the Patriots wanted to kick off. He had double checked -- asking three or four times -- when Bill Belichick told him.

Belichick had made unconventional game management decisions in the past -- going for it on fourth-and-2 against Peyton Manning or intentionally taking a safety -- but this had shades of Marty Mornhinweg, kicking off in overtime when there was a chance the Patriots would never touch the ball.

On the Jets' sideline, Brandon Marshall's first reaction when he heard the Patriots win the toss, was "stop 'em."

"Then, it was our ball, and it was 'What the hell?' "

But what the heck, the Jets went on their best drive of the day.

Ryan Fitzpatrick had been off target for parts of the day, especially on some deep balls, and Quincy Enunwa had let Fitzpatrick's best pass of the day -- a bomb down the middle of the field that might have averted overtime entirely -- fall off his fingertips. But with this rare, head-scratching gift, Fitzpatrick roused the offense that has sprung to life in the last month and has propelled the Jets to five straight victories. He completed a short pass to Enunwa, who turned the catch into a 48-yard gain. He had Marshall for 20 yards. And then, five offensive plays after Belichick made his fateful call, Fitzpatrick hit Eric Decker for a 6-yard touchdown pass. Before the frame-by-frame analysis of the coin toss was even over, before the comments by officials and players could even be fully deciphered, the game was over, and the Jets had won 26-20.

"I had broken the team down and I said, 'When we win, don't act like we won the Super Bowl,' " Marshall said later. "We won -- everybody stormed the field, the freaking fireworks go off."

Marshall found his old Denver head coach Josh McDaniels, now New England's offensive coordinator, amid the celebration and sought an explanation for what had just happened. Marshall said McDaniels told him the Patriots wanted to play the field position game -- that their injury-decimated offense had done so little during the day (just one touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter) that they would put the game in the hands of their defense instead, hoping to stop the Jets deep in their own territory, force a punt and then have a short field for what would have been the game-winning field goal try.

"He explained a little but I didn't believe him," Marshall said.

Belichick echoed what McDaniels had said: "I thought that was the best thing to do. There wasn't any confusion."

It was, it turned out, a gross miscalculation -- the Patriots never touched the ball in overtime, having perhaps underestimated the Jets' offense -- but it might not have been a total loss for the Patriots. The Jets' victory, combined with the Steelers' loss, makes it less likely that the Steelers will make the playoffs, and the Steelers' explosive offense would seem to be a more dangerous playoff opponent for the Patriots than the Jets, who have beaten the Patriots just twice since defeating them in the playoffs of January 2011.

The Patriots can still clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC with a win over Miami in Week 17. And the truth is that they nearly beat the Jets without receivers Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola, without defensive backs Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung and without left tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who left with an ankle injury early in the game. Belichick may have been right, after all, to have limited confidence in his offense under those conditions after a day in which the Jets limited the Patriots to one -- yes, one -- third-down conversion in 10 tries. The Patriots' primary goal now, with the AFC East already assured and a first-round bye already in their pockets, is to rest their players and get them into as good health as possible before the divisional round of the playoffs. They are probably good enough to beat the Dolphins at half strength. They were very nearly good enough to beat the Jets, too.

But this is a different Jets team than the one that folded into a heap of mistakes against the Patriots earlier this season. Their previous four wins had come against losing teams, but beating the Patriots felt different, a step up in class even if New England had taken half a step down because of a full injury report.

"We've grown since the middle of the season, we're finding ways to pull games out," Jets coach Todd Bowles said. "We're still growing. I'm not saying we've arrived. But they fought. They're gritty."

In recent years, the Jets borrowed plenty of Rex Ryan's swagger without taking on any of his early success with the Jets. Bowles is not the boasting sort, but for a franchise that acknowledges the Patriots are the king of the hill -- they have colonized the hill, in reality -- this victory was important psychologically. The Jets had to prove to themselves -- and maybe to the Patriots, too -- that they are capable of beating the Patriots when they have to. So that maybe the next time they meet, and it could be during the playoffs, Belichick will have to think twice about daring the Jets' offense to beat him.

But first, the Jets have to win one more game against, well, everybody knew it would come to this from the day the schedule was announced, the Bills. Fitzpatrick still has friends in Buffalo -- it's also where he and Chan Gailey first had success together -- and he shook his head and ruefully noted that there would be no shortage of material for reporters this week. And within a few minutes of that weird sequence of events, there was another installment, Ryan behind the podium.

"We don't want to be in a spoiler role," Ryan said. "That wasn't our goal. But the Jets know they're going to get our best shot."

They didn't really get one of those from the Patriots. But after so many years of futility against their archrival, the Jets were probably due for some weirdness to go their way. They will take a strange decision, a victory and another breath of playoff life however they can get them.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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