EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Jets got in the Pats' heads. Plain and simple.
Incredible as it may sound, that's what happened Sunday afternoon in The Meadowlands.
Remember this game, Patriots fans. Because you might not see something like this again. Not under Bill Belichick. It was a rarity in this era, in which New England is always the team that wins the psychological battle.
Not today, however. Jets head coach Rex Ryanhad his team buying everything he was selling. And that may have been the difference in the ballgame.
The mind games began long before kickoff, when Ryan and his players launched a barrage of verbal assaults in New England's direction earlier this week – the Pats, of course, characteristically refused to retaliate publicly.
But Ryan's pre-game psychological warfare continued up until the coin toss. He sent four captains out to midfield, three of whom are former Patriots: offensive lineman Damien Woody, special teams ace Larry Izzo… and the most curious of all, third-string quarterback Kevin O'Connell, cut by New England just a few weeks ago.
Once the actual game started, the head games continued. It was no secret that Ryan, who came from the Baltimore Ravens with a penchant for blitzing, was probably going to pressure quarterback Tom Bradylike with a Chicago-election-style attack – blitzing early and often. And that's exactly what he did.
"The Jets had a good game plan today," wide receiver Randy Mosspointed out. "I think the biggest thing was having Coach Ryan and bringing his defensive philosophy to the Jets."
But New England was prepared … or so they thought. They'd hatched a scheme to mollify the manic Jets defense by outthinking them … or so they thought.
The idea was to throw New York off-balance and put them on their heels by running a hurry-up offense. And there was a twist. The Pats modified and reduced their play calling a numerical list of plays that were typed out on small cards or sheets of paper. Each player on the New England offense carried condensed playbooks with them out onto the field.
From the sidelines, practice squad quarterback Isaiah Stanback, dressed in civilian clothes, and wide receivers coach Chad O'Sheaeach held a large grease board, on which they would scribble numbers and then hold up high for the players on the field to see. The offense would then consult their lists, quickly get into position, and run the play.
At first, the ploy worked. The Jets did seem jolted by the tactic and New England moved the ball effectively down the field. Problem was, the Pats only managed three field goals in the first half. Red zone inefficiency plagued the Pats offense for the second consecutive game. Brady once again looked un-Brady-like, throwing 24 incompletions, many of which were wildly off target. And when Brady was on the mark, his receivers often couldn't hang on to the ball.
New York took advantage. At halftime, they made the necessary adjustments to deal with New England's tricky game plan. One of which was to maintain their poise and confidence.
"They came out with a higher intensity," cornerback Jonathan Wilhiteobserved later. "We just didn't match it today."
"We practiced for everything this week. We were prepared," said tight end Benjamin Watson. "Sometimes, the other team just out-performs."
New England's revamped offensive scheme encountered some unexpected glitches as well. There was often miscommunication prior to the snap, with receivers and backs unsure of where to line up. That caused precious time to run off the clock. At one point, the Pats committed back-to-back delay of game penalties (Brady said later he took the second one on purpose).
By the fourth quarter, in two desperation drives in the final five minutes, Brady looked like he was blindly throwing passes downfield, with no particular receiver in mind, because he and his teammates were out of synch.
"We didn't execute. We kept going backwards instead of going forwards," Moss stated. "You've gotta give credit to the Jets. There's no sugarcoating it. They beat us. That's it."
"We had a good plan. We just didn't execute very well," added Brady. "We tried to go hurry-up pretty much the whole game. We had some good opportunities to take advantage going fast. At the end, it didn't help very much.
"We're not really firing on all cylinders now. We've got to find out what our issues are and correct them."
Curiously, the Patriots seemed to sense they'd been had. Yet, in their post-game locker room, the team's psyche was in better condition than you might imagine. While the Jets were celebrating their victory as if they'd won the Super Bowl (which is how they'd described this game), New England was magnanimous in defeat and philosophical in putting the game in its proper perspective.
"There's more football to be played. That's what we have to focus on," advised Wilhite.
And with a smile and a nod, Moss offered the following forecast when asked about the current state of the Pats offense.
"I love Tom Brady, man. Just keep looking. We'll keep it coming."
The Patriots know they'll face their division rivals in New York again this season, in late November, when perhaps more will be on the line than was today. Beaten in score for the moment, New England appears determined not to be beaten in spirit hereafter.
They may have lost the psychological battle today. It remains to be seen whether or not they've won the larger mind game war.