FOXBOROUGH - Third-and-15. And a wide-open rookie.
That's going to sit with these Patriots for the next 10 days. Till they suit up for their next game.
It was perhaps the most thrilling game ever played at Gillette Stadium. It was undeniably Matt Cassel'sbest performance as the Patriots starting quarterback, a come-from-behind masterpiece reminiscent of Tom Brady. It was a nationally-televised affair that introduced the football world to **Jerod Mayo *(20 tackles on the night), the clear front-runner for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
When this vertiginous sea-saw battle for first place in the AFC East had to be decided in overtime, the outcome hinged on an uncovered rookie tight end.
There were so many memorable plays from this latest Patriots-Jets slug-fest, but one in particular that broke the Pats' backs.
First, some context.
After being completely outplayed for the majority of the first half, New England quickly found itself down 24-6, courtesy of two Brett Favretouchdown passes and a **Leon Washington *kickoff return for a score.
New York was dominating and the forecast looked bleak for New England. But with less than two minutes to go in the first half, the Patriots figured the Jets out. Cassel marched his offense down the field and found wide receiver Jabar Gaffneyfor a momentum-shifting touchdown just seconds before intermission.
They then took the opening kickoff of the third quarter and continued to drive at will on the Jets' suddenly incompetent defense. But a Benjamin Watsonfumble stalled New England's first drive. Then an errant snap by center Dan Koppen, which Cassel evidently wasn't ready to receive, effectively put an end to the Pats' second series of the second half.
Still, the Jets could not capitalize. They didn't seem to have that necessary killer instinct.
With no time left in the third quarter, Cassel hit Watson for a touchdown, then Gaffney for the crucial 2-point conversion to cut the Jets lead to three. New England seemed in total control.
They later tied it up with a Stephen Gostkowskifield goal, but then the Jets woke up and put together an impressive, time-consuming drive that ended with what looked like the winning touchdown with just over three minutes remaining.
After trading three-and-outs, Cassel got the ball back with 1:04 on the regulation clock. A minute and three second later, in Brady-like fashion, he somehow managed to throw the tying touchdown pass to wide receiver Randy Mossin the Jets end zone. There was the narrowest of openings in which Cassel could have put the ball, with Moss practically wearing newly-signed Jets DB Ty Law like a cape – and Cassel got it there. A replay review confirmed it, forcing overtime.
Given how dangerous Washington had been returning the first couple of Patriots kickoffs, New England decided to squib kick during the rest of regulation. But in overtime, that was too risky a move. They needed Gostkowski to boom a touchback. He nailed it, five yards deep in the Jets end zone.
Jets ball first-and-10 at their own 20.
Favre gets sacked on the first play, losing five yards. So, the Patriots had New York pinned back at the Jets 15-yard line. Rookie linebacker Gary Guytonmade a great pass deflection on second down to bring up …
Given the odds New England had overcome already, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they'd hold the Jets and make them punt deep in their own territory.
Yet, they forgot to cover Dustin Keller.
The rookie tight end was a thorn in the Pats' side throughout the evening, nimbly working his way free in the New England secondary and making several catches for big gains (he ended up the leading receiver for the Jets, with 8 grabs for 87 yards).
But earlier in the game, he'd dropped what would have been a touchdown on a seemingly easy pass from Favre. He was the last option you might have expected Favre to look for in the clutch.
Favre, however, had no choice. No Patriots were guarding Keller. He caught Favre's pass about 14 yards from the line of scrimmage and willed his way through the tackle of safety Brandon Meriweatherfor the necessary extra two yards.
If he comes up short, the Pats get the ball back with decent field position and, chances are, they score.
But Keller killed them. He picked up 12 more yards to gain another first down two plays later, and four yards on third-and-1 from the Patriots 44. Those three catches bound the Jets' overtime drive that ended with kicker Jay Feely booting the game-winning field goal.
"It was real nervy, but you just get up for that," Keller said of his third-and-15 catch. "Your adrenalin is pumping; it was just unexplainable. All that is going through your mind is, 'Go out there, the ball is coming to me.' Even if it is not, you still have to think that, and you got to get open.
"I did not think I would have this big of a role," he admitted. "Like I said you have to go out there thinking the ball is coming your way. I couldn't have anticipated getting this many balls today. I am just glad it turned out the way it did."
"He made a lot of critical third-down conversions, especially on that last drive," Patriots safety James Sandersacknowledged in a painfully quiet New England locker room afterwards. "He made plays on that last drive and we didn't. That's the outcome today."
It was the greatest game ever played at Gillette Stadium. And it's going to sit with these Patriots for a while.
Because it's just too bad it had to end the way it did.