EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Let's start at the very end.
Just the fact that New England had forced overtime in this game and had a chance at all to win it was a major moral victory.
But more on that in a moment.
First... NFL overtime rules state that both teams shall have an opportunity to possess the football, unless a touchdown is scored by either club on the first drive. That left many observers wondering whether Clete Blakeman's officiating crew misunderstood what Patriots co-captain Matthew Slater had said at midfield after New England won the toss.
Slater could be seen gesturing and at times heard making protests to Blakeman about what had transpired.
Initially, the assumption was that Slater had either mistakenly chosen to have the Patriots kick, or that Blakeman misunderstood Slater's instruction. However, afterward, Slater made clear that the Patriots indeed wanted to kick off if they won the toss. Slater said he discussed it with Bill Belichick and his coaches several before going out for the coin flip, and the decision was made then that if the Patriots won the toss – which they did – they would elect to kick off to New York. Slater added that Belichick informed Blakeman's crew beforehand as well, to ensure that everyone on the field knew New England's intentions.
"Obviously, as a player," Slater told reporters, "you ask three or four times, just to double-check. You want to make sure you get it right."
The confusion, Slater explained, stemmed from his own erroneous assumption that New England could also choose which end zone it wanted to defend, but referee Blakeman informed him that once the Patriots chose the option to kick, the decision to defend either end fell to the Jets.
"We won the toss, we chose to kick off, just like Coach instructed us to," he continued. "I was just trying to get clarification [from the officials] because we wanted to kick the other way. We weren't able to make that decision. So… yeah, there's not much to it."
I understand the thinking. Your defense has outplayed your offense all afternoon and you feel good about their chances of forcing a Jets punt, getting the ball back to the offense in decent field position, and needing only a field goal to win the game and clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Problem is, if your defense doesn't hold and surrendered a TD on the opening drive, game over. Which is what happened.
Still, Patriots players insisted afterward that the risky decision to give New York the ball first did not come as a surprise to any of them.
"Not at all," declared cornerback Logan Ryan. "That just puts it on us, the defense, to make a stop, which we get paid to do, and didn't do it."
"No surprise," echoed wide receiver Brandon LaFell. "Our defense was playing great football in the fourth quarter. And the way we ended the game, we had a lot of faith in our defense. If we could do it over again, we'd do it the same way."
"You never question Coach [Belichick]'s decision-making," Slater concluded. "He's the best in the business and we trust him fully. They don't pay me to manage the games. It's not my decision. When I'm told to do something, that's what I'm going to do. Obviously, in that situation, as a player, maybe you're thinking, 'Hey, we want the ball. We won the toss.' But that's not what Coach wanted to do."
Now let's revisit how improbable it was that New England even got to overtime.
This game meant more to the Jets than it did for the Patriots.
New England already had a first-round playoff bye wrapped up, and a win over New York would ensure the Patriots home-field advantage for both the Divisional round and AFC title game, if they were to make it that far. The Jets, meanwhile, were fighting just to stay relevant in the post-season conversation. They absolutely needed to win the game.
Yes, it would have been nice for the Patriots to get the home-field goal accomplished this week, but it would still be possible in the regular season finale at Miami next week, so, there may have been less urgency of New England's part to go all-out in this game.
That appeared to be the case when, down 10-3 just before halftime and with a pair of timeouts at their disposal, the Patriots' offense elected to keep the ball on the ground and run out the clock.
Going in, the main concern was keeping the 53-man roster as healthy as possible and, with that in mind, the team deactivated several key starters on both sides of the football. If the Patriots were to win this game, it would have to be predominantly with backups at a number of significant positions. Then, several more players went down, notably left tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Given all the injuries this team has suffered all season, including in this game, it was nearly a miracle that they were able to field 11 players at any given time, let alone be competitive and tied with a minute to go in the game.
"It says a lot about us. We've got a lot of character on this team," stated Slater. "We've had guys come in here the last couple of weeks that are new to the team and had to step up and play for us, and we've still been competitive. But it's hard every week. You look up and guys are getting carted off or coming out of the game. It's hard on you emotionally to see that. We have to do the best we can to keep competing."
"Injuries are not an excuse," added Ryan. "Never been an excuse for us. We've won with injuries before. We expected to win with injuries today. Didn't execute. That started with me. I didn't win my matchup. I'll take that on me."
"We didn't play as well as we wanted to. We wanted to come out with a victory," running back James White maintained. "We fought to the end, but we need to play better. Injuries happen on every team. No excuses. You never know the reasons for it. It's tough. We have to learn from this and move on quickly. Miami's another good team. It'll be a challenge for us. Have to have a good week of practice."
For the Jets, it was an important victory for their playoff hopes. New England goes home defeated, but comforted only in the knowledge that they have one more opportunity to wrap up the top seed next weekend in Miami.
"That's the best thing about it," LaFell admitted. "We can control our own destiny. Go down to Miami, a hostile environment. These guys are going to play us tough like they did the first time… Hopefully we make more plays than we did this time."