It's probably a pretty good bet that the director of the Bill Murray movie "Groundhog Day" had the 2000 and 2001 Patriots in mind. New England's 10-3 loss to the New York Jets in the home opener was eerily familiar to so many defeats suffered by Bill Belichick's Patriots during his now 18-game reign as head coach.
Stop me if you've heard this before. The Patriots offense moves the ball well at times, but fails to convert touchdowns from within the red zone. The defense plays solidly for the most part, but suffers a couple of lapses that allow the opponent to march 89 yards for a tying field goal and 93 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Then the offense gets a couple of last-ditch chances, moves within scoring range, but fails to provide the tying or winning point.
If you close your eyes, there's no way to distinguish this game from virtually every one of the 13 losses in the Belichick era. The team stays close, but falls short in the end.
The only thing that would distinguish this loss from any of the others was that Drew Bledsoe was not around at the end. Bledsoe took a ferocious shot from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis near the Patriots sideline as he was trying to pick up a first down on a scramble midway through the fourth quarter. Bledsoe appeared dazed on the field and remained down for a minute before making his way to the bench.
He returned for the Patriots next series – which ended in Edwards' second fumble at the Jets 34 – but Belichick decided he wasn't right and replaced him for the final series with backup Tom Brady. Bledsoe did not speak to the media after the game but was taken from the locker room on a stretcher. He finished 18-for-28 for 159 yards to go with two interceptions.
"I talked to him after the hit and he felt he was OK," Belichick said. "Then I watched him in that last series and he didn't seem right. I shouldn't have put him back in. He looked woozy and I decided to put Tom in there."
Belichick said Bledsoe still wanted to return but the quarterback understood the decision. It also was apparent this loss hit the head coach especially hard.
[!()]() "It was a real tough loss," Belichick said with a sharp bitterness in his tone. "We just have to play a little better. There were some positive things out there, but it wasn't good enough in a tight game. We made too many mistakes."
Ah mistakes, where to start. Try four turnovers – the two interceptions and a pair of Marc Edwards fumbles – all coming with the Patriots knocking on the door. Of the four turnovers, two came inside the Jets 10 and the others came at the New York 37 and 34.
Edwards' first fumble was particularly damaging, coming in a 3-3 game amidst an impressive Patriots drive to open the second half. New England moved from its own 17 to the New York 10 behind Bledsoe's only stretch of solid play on the afternoon. He went 7-for-7 for 55 yards on the drive after suffering through one of the most miserable halves of football in his career. He completed 5-of-10 passes for just 17 yards and an interception before intermission before finally getting untracked after the break.
But even his resurgence didn't translate into points as Edwards took his handoff and surged up the middle for 3 yards before getting hit by James Darling just before he hit the ground. The ball came loose and seemed to go right to Antowain Smith, who was directly behind Edwards on the play. The ball squirted through Smith's hands, though, and Steve Martin gathered it in at the Jets 7, taking away a golden opportunity to take the lead.
The Jets then responded by marching 93 yards in 12 plays for the game's only touchdown. Curtis Martin (24 carries, 106 yards) runs and effective play-action passes by Vinny Testaverde moved New York into position and Martin finished it off with an 8-yard burst off right tackle for the touchdown. A costly unnecessary roughness penalty on Tedy Bruschi also was key because it gave the Jets a first down after a short completion to Richie Anderson that would have set up a third-and-seven from the Patriots 34. Instead, the penalty pushed the ball the New England 19 and the Jets needed just three more plays to finish the drive.
After that drive, the Patriots defense forced five Tom Tupa punts to give the offense chance after chance to redeem itself. But Bledsoe was unable to maintain the one hot streak he had early in the third quarter. The best chance came with 9:22 remaining in the game when Bledsoe threw a perfect pass to Troy Brown down the left sideline for a 58-yard gain down to the Jets 11. He hit J.R. Redmond for 7 yards on the next play, setting up second-and-three from the Jets 4.
John Abraham chased down Bledsoe for a 4-yard loss on the only sack of the day for New York, setting up third-and-seven from the 8. Bledsoe looked for Charles Johnson in the back of the end zone, but he was well covered and the pass was intercepted by linebacker James Farrior, who returned it 47 yards to end the threat.
On the Patriots next possession, Bledsoe thought he had a 17-yard completion to Bert Emanuel, but the call was overturned as replays indicated Emanuel dropped the perfect pass. Bledsoe then tried to run for the first down on third-and-10 and was met 2 yards short of the stick by Lewis, who lowered his right shoulder and rocked Bledsoe out of bounds.
"I was scared for him more than surprised that [Belichick] took him out," Brown said. "I've seen some big hits before, but I've never seen a guy have that look in his eyes up close like Drew had after that. He sounded like he was OK, but I can tell you firsthand that just because you sound OK doesn't mean you are."
The Patriots defense forced four straight three-and-out possessions by the Jets to end the game, giving the offense terrific field position at the New York 39 with 3:36 to go after the third one. Bledsoe handed to Kevin Faulk for a 6-yard gain on first down and Smith picked up 2 more on second, setting up a third-and-two from the 31. Faulk was called for illegal motion to push the Patriots back 5 yards, and Bledsoe's shovel pass to Edwards gained just 2 yards before Abraham forced and recovered the fullback's second fumble of the day.
Belichick felt he'd seen enough from his quarterback at that point and called for Brady, who went 5-for-10 for 46 yards on the final drive. He marched the Patriots from their own 30 to the Jets 29 with 13 seconds to go. With three shots to tie the game, Brady misfired on the first, threw into a crowd of players in the end zone on the second, and looked for Johnson on the last play, only to have all three fall incomplete.
The Patriots actually outgained their opponents 308-238 and even ran the ball somewhat effectively. New England rushed 26 times for 107 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and mixed the run and pass well at times. But turnovers, red zone inefficiency (0-for-3) and penalties at the most inopportune times spelled disaster.
"I thought Tom did a nice job of moving us down close," guard Mike Compton said. "But we were able to get close all day. Problem was we couldn't put it in and that's why you lose games. We need to find a way to make the plays when we need them."
That's a phrase the Patriots and their fans have become all too familiar with.