FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – What matters in a game like this?
Is it more important to win the game, or treat it like the preseason, to allow players on the lower end of the depth chart to showcase themselves for a chance to return next year?
When two teams that are out of playoff contention face one another in a season-ending meeting, does the final record, with its draft seeding implications, come into play?
The visiting New York Jets came to Foxborough riding a two-game winning streak; the host Patriots, a run of three straight losses. How would they approach this final game at the start of a new calendar year?
Before they kicked off, safety and co-captain Devin McCourty delivered to his teammates an impassioned motivational speech, parts of which he shared with reporters afterward.
"Everywhere you looked this week, [people were saying] the game didn't matter, it was meaningless. I just told guys to think about their journey," McCourty recalled. "To have an opportunity to play here, last game of the year, you know you're not going to the playoffs, but at some point in your journey, you've been doubted… if someone gave you this opportunity, we'd all take it and give it everything we got. I told guys to think about that today. If someone told you this was your last-ever game, what would you do? I was proud of the way guys responded."
"How can you say the game doesn't matter?" cornerback J.C. Jackson would ask reporters rhetorically during his post-game remarks. "I don't get that. I don't understand how people say that. It's another game you get to go out and compete with your brothers, your teammates, and just have fun. That's what the game is all about – competing, having fun, enjoying the moment. So, it mattered to me and my teammates."
That's exactly how it looked on the game's opening drive. After a couple of hiccups in the form of penalties and a botched shotgun snap, New England eventually marched 84 yards in seven plays, much of them on a 49-yard run by Cam Newton on a QB keeper (the longest run ever by a Patriots quarterback, incidentally). Newton then finished things off with a short TD pass to RB James White. Kicker Nick Folk's ensuing extra point gave the Patriots a quick 7-0 lead.
Despite losing safety Adrian Phillips to a hip injury during the Jets' first drive, New England's defense came up with a stop and made New York punt it back to the Patriots. However, they could do nothing with the ball on that drive or for the remainder of the half.
Indeed, the first two quarters felt very much like a preseason game, full of punts, penalties, and personnel packages aplenty. If there was a standout first-half performer, it was edge rusher Chase Winovich, who batted down a Sam Darnold pass on 3rd down to force a Jets punt and registered a pair of sacks.
Yet, Darnold led his club to a game-tying touchdown late in the second quarter, just prior to intermission, before engineering a go-ahead TD drive to start the third quarter. RB Josh Adams punctured the Patriots' defensive line for a 1-yard scoring run, and with the PAT, New York took a 14-7 lead.
"It's not always going to be smooth sailing," RB Sony Michel later observed. "You have to learn how to adjust, deal with adversity. You've got to keep grinding, pushing forward, keep being you."
New England seemed to embrace Michel's sentiments, as New York's lead wouldn't last very long.
A well-timed and well-executed trick play brought New England level again. On the last play of a 10-play series, WR Jakobi Meyers, taking a pitch on a reverse in the Patriots' backfield, stopped in his tracks and lofted a perfect strike downfield to Newton. The QB was wide open on the other end of the scoring play and needed only fend off one straggling defender to get into the end zone. For Meyers, it was his second TD in as many pass attempts this season.
"It's pretty special, you know," Meyers beamed. "It was always my dream to play quarterback in the NFL. So, to be able to throw a touchdown, and to throw it to Cam was a pretty good feeling. It tells me [the team] believes in me a lot, so I need to have confidence in myself and just keep that going."
New York's next possession ended prematurely when Darnold threw a pick to Jackson just as the third quarter came to a close. Jackson's interception, his ninth of the season, would portend better things to come for New England. Snowflakes, which were sporadic earlier in the day, started falling at a more consistent rate soon thereafter. New England's record when it snows is spotless.
The New England Patriots take on the New York Jets in a regular season game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, January 3, 2021.
"It made it kind of cool. You dream about playing games when it starts to snow," added Meyers. "So, that's something I'll hold onto, and we got the W, so, that's definitely going to be a good memory for me."
Meanwhile, Newton made the Jets pay a few plays later when he delivered a nice downfield touchdown throw to Devin Asiasi at the start of the fourth quarter. The rookie tight end's first NFL touchdown helped put New England back in the lead, 21-14.
Following yet another Jets punt, Newton found Michel out of the backfield for an uncontested 31-yard touchdown that doubled up the Patriots' advantage with under 12 minutes remaining. The play was especially memorable for the veteran ball-carrier.
"It was a cool experience to get my first receiving touchdown," he acknowledged. "Coach called the play, the offense executed, and once I touched the ball, I tried to make a play in space and reach the end zone."
Darnold proceeded to direct a long, time-consuming drive that threatened to result in a score, but he threw another interception, this time to CB Jonathan Jones in the end zone that essentially sealed the victory for the Patriots. New England's offense needed only run out the remaining three-and-a-half minutes, which it did.
For the Patriots, this win concludes their most unproductive season, in terms of overall wins, in 20 years. The club can now rest for a few weeks before turning its attention to the 2021 team-building process.
"It means a lot to me and my teammates," Jackson admitted. "We just kept fighting, not only today but all season long. It was a rough season, a rough year… It was a good year for me, but it could have been a better year for the team. This is our last game together, so… it was important because it's a new year, a great way to start a [new] year to get a win. I feel like we finished the season the right way."
"It's a good way to end the season," McCourty emphasized. "Obviously, not the way we wanted [the season] to go, and we've known that for the last two weeks… but I think it's good for the team moving forward. You talk about character, it's not easy when you have all the 10-win seasons, you're in the playoffs every year. It'll mean a lot going forward for a lot of these young guys to have extended careers. They'll always remember this year, what we went through, what the country went through, and what it took to go out there each day to just keep fighting. I was proud to be a part of this team."