EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In three tries, Bill Belichick was 0-3 against his former team -- the New York Jets. Through 30 minutes of Sunday's game at Giants Stadium, it looked like the Patriots head coach would have to wait 'till next year to earn his first win over New York.
But when the final whistle blew with quarterback Tom Brady taking a knee, Belichick's sideline celebration told the story. Not only did his club go out and turn the tables on a 13-0 halftime deficit for an unlikely 17-16 win, but also found its way into the thick of the division and playoff race by knocking off first place New York (7-4) on the road to improve to 7-5 on the season.
"We were down by 13 points on the road to a team leading the division," Belichick said in explaining his emotional reaction to the outcome. "Our season was on the line.
"Our team had a real courageous effort," he continued. "They hung in there and fought back in the second half. It took a strong effort in a tough divisional game and we came a long way back. It was pretty satisfying."
If ever there was a tale of two halves, this game was it. The Jets dominated the first 30 minutes on both sides of the ball. With a bye week to prepare for the Patriots, the Jets worked at revitalizing their dormant passing attack and torched the Patriots through the air from the outset in jumping out to the 13-0 halftime lead.
Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde completed 15-of-23 for 164 yards and a touchdown to seven different receivers over the first 30 minutes as the Patriots defenders seemed to have no answers.
Meanwhile, the Jets defense was suffocating both Tom Brady and Antowain Smith as the Patriots front line succumbed to a swarming Jets defense that collapsed the pocket to keep the Patriots offense off balance and off the field.
But the second half was a different story on both sides of the ball. Testaverde was shut down after the break and running back Curtis Martin was contained if not stopped. The Jets quarterback finished 19-of-33 for 184 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions as he cooled off and Martin carried 19 times for 87 yards and no touchdowns against a Patriots defense that gained momentum as the second half wore on.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots turned to a three-step drop in the passing game to overcome the Jets torrid pass rush, and Brady turned things around. After completing just 5-of-11 for 53 yards in the first half, Brady caught fire, completing 15-of-17 in the second half to finish 20-for-28 for 213 yards, but he did have his streak of seven games with a touchdown pass snapped.
To be sure, the turnaround began with the game's first turnover, a Testaverde interception that Brandon Mitchell deflected at the line of scrimmage and Mike Vrabel corralled. In fact, a big key in the game was the turnover ratio as the Jets came in leading the league with a plus-22 ratio. But the Patriots took it away twice and didn't turn it over on their side.
Three plays after Vrabel's interception, Brady hit rookie free agent Fred Coleman on a slant over the middle and Coleman scampered 46 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Jets 4.
The Patriots averted disaster on the next play when a Brady pass sure to be intercepted was batted at the line of scrimmage before Smith scored from 4 yards out one play later to make it 13-7.
But a long kickoff return to the 48 by New York's Craig Yeast followed by two Martin runs for 30 yards set up Hall for a 50-yard field goal and a 16-7 lead as the Jets quickly answered the Patriots score.
The Patriots responded immediately, using another big catch-and-run play to set up their second touchdown of the third quarter. This time, Brady hit Smith over the middle on third-and-nine and the big running back changed gears to carve his way through the Jets defense for a 40-yard gain to the New York 27.
Kevin Faulk then ran three times, shaking and baking for 23 yards before Marc Edwards scored from the 4 to cut the Jets lead to 16-14.
After another defensive stop, the Patriots scored on their third straight possession, only this time, they needed Adam Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal to complete an 11-play drive gave the Patriots their first lead at 17-16 with 6:29 to go in the game.
The Jets had another chance, but the Patriots defense rose up to make two of its biggest stops of the season. After moving from its own 25 to the New England 44, New York faced a third-and-five play, but safety Matt Stevens flushed Testaverde from the pocket, forcing an incomplete pass along the sideline intended for Wayne Chrebet.
Then on the fourth-down play with 2:07 to go, Testaverde tried to thread the needle to tight end Anthony Becht, but cornerback Terrell Buckley intercepted the pass to give New England the ball with just more than 2:00 remaining.
"The big thing was not to let them get the ball to Chrebet," Belichick said in describing his strategy on the critical third- and fourth-down plays.
Three runs later, the Patriots had a first down and took a knee and the needed win.
The first half was an entirely different story.
The Jets wasted no time getting on the board on the game's opening possession with Testaverde dissecting the Patriots secondary. First he hit rookie Santana Moss for 33 yards on a third-and-nine play. Three plays later, Testaverde connected with wideout Laveranues Coles on a quick slant and Coles outran Ty Law and Tebucky Jones to the end zone for a lightning quick 7-0 New York lead. Testaverde finished the drive 4-of-5 for 81 yards.
After a Patriots three-and-out, New York went right back to work against an overmatched Patriots defense caught off guard by a suddenly potent Jets passing attack. Testaverde stayed hot with a 25-yard pass on the first play of the next series, this one coming on flea flicker that gave the Jets a first down at the New England 31. Then Martin came alive, catching a 12-yard swing pass before being stuffed by Tedy Bruschi and Bryan Cox on third-and-goal from the 2. John Hall's 19-yard field goal put the Patriots behind the eight ball at 10-0 midway through the first quarter.
The Jets extended their late in the half with a 10-play, 5:02 drive that ended in Hall's second field goal, this one from 40 yards, as New York took a 13-0 lead. Testaverde was 4-of-6 for 32 yards and added a 12-yard scramble to the drive as the Patriots defense continued to have it troubles.
Those troubles would fall on the other sideline after the break as the Jets saw their four-game winning streak snapped. The Patriots are now 4-2 in the division with games against Miami and Buffalo remaining. The division race now looks like this: With Miami's 21-10 win over Denver, the Dolphins sit in first place at 8-3 with Jets a game back at 7-4 and the Patriots closing at 7-5. Indy's loss at Baltimore dropped them to 4-6 and most likely out of the hunt for a playoff berth.