Swaggering Jets served thick piece of humble pie by Patriots

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Go back to that first drive, to the fourth-and-1 at the New York Jets' 46-yard line that Rex Ryan thought was actually a misplaced first down.

The Jets trailed, 3-0, in a game that was only a little more than six minutes old, and Ryan threw his red flag to challenge the spot.

Was he actually so afraid to punt and ask the third-ranked defense in the NFL to stop the league's top-scoring offense that he was willing to risk a timeout so soon, and then subsequently go for it when the review showed the Jets were indeed a yard short?

Apparently so. And, as it turned out, apparently with good reason.

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That defense about which Ryan is always so quick to boast, the one that defines him as a coach and the Jets as a team, wasn't remotely close to being up to the challenge of dealing with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. If you want to get to the heart of the humiliation that Gang Green suffered Monday night, you must start there. A questionable decision, which backfired. The Jets did convert the fourth-and-1, but then Ryan, so desperate to get points, called for a 53-yard field-goal attempt that predictably missed on a cold night that made kicking a football feel like kicking a cinder block.

Brady and his supporting cast did pretty much anything and everything they pleased on the way to a 45-3 victory that appeared to expose the Jets to the entire nation as somewhat fraudulent in the role of an elite team.

"It's embarrassing," Jets safety Eric Smith said in the biggest of understatements.

This was supposed to be a battle of the NFL's dominant duo, two teams sitting atop the AFC East with 9-2 records and ready to make statements about what to expect in January. In the Jets' case, it was a chance for a season sweep.

Now the question has to be asked whether they merited a whole lot of legitimacy as an NFL kingpin in the first place. After all, they needed three late comebacks for victories against opponents that were less than stellar or downright bad.

Sure, the Patriots' offense is capable of making a lot of defenses look bad. However, the Jets' pass defense has been suspect all season. Their pass rush pretty well lost its teeth when tackle Kris Jenkins suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1. Then, in the final stages of preparation for Monday night's game, safety Jim Leonhard, the quarterback of the defense, also wound up with a season-ending injury.

So much for the Jets' defensive muscle. So much for all of the brash and bold talk by Ryan, who had talked about intending to kick the butt of his counterpart, Bill Belichick, who makes no such declarations.

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"Rex stuck his neck out there and he said he thought we were going to win and we didn't back him up tonight," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "We do pride ourselves on being physical, confident; some people take it as cocky. We just didn't bring that. I don't know why."

Added Jets defensive tackle Sione Pouha, "This humble pie tastes like a car tire and it goes down like peanut butter."

In what seemed like a blink, the Jets went from being in position to become the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs to likely needing to play on the road in the postseason. You even have to wonder about the outside chance that they end up being on the outside looking in at the playoffs, because the Jets' schedule doesn't get any easier. Two of their final four games are at Chicago and at Pittsburgh, and any more performances like the one they had Monday night could very well turn them into playoff spectators.

The Patriots' defense, supposedly their weakness, constantly changed personnel groupings and befuddled Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who wound up throwing three interceptions. The first came deep in Patriot territory to end the Jets' most promising drive of the night -- and Brady promptly led the Patriots all the way down the field for another touchdown.

Pats running back Danny Woodhead, whom the Jets released in the preseason, got plenty of revenge against his former team by catching four passes for 104 yards, including a 50-yarder on a shovel pass.

The embarrassment didn't end there. In the final minutes, what remained of the sellout crowd of 68,756 in frigid Gillette Stadium began to chant, "Over-rated! Over-rated!"

Then, with 4:18 left, the Jets drew the sort of penalty that spoke to their general ineptitude while making a statement about their desperate need to do something, anything, to stop the Pats: Twelve men on the field on defense.

As a team so dependent on walking with a swagger, it is fair to wonder whether a game like this will cause the Jets to begin to have some doubts about exactly how good they are.

"It shows you that, week in and week out, you can't rest on what was done last week (such as the Thanksgiving victory) against the Bengals," Pace said. "You've got to keep building, and we took a step back. You would think we would take the next step up, especially at this stage, the magnitude of this game (with a chance) to be another game up in this division."

Someone asked Pace if he could ever remember being a part of such a disastrous outcome.

"The last butt-whipping I had like this, I was with another organization," said Pace, who as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals in 2003 lost 38-0 to Seattle and 44-6 to Cleveland. "It's humbling. But you have to move on. I'm pretty sure everyone here will use this to examine themselves and do what it takes for us to get better."

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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