The Patriots chose the unusual route of taking the train to their huge AFC East showdown with the New York Jets last Sunday. After the team's dramatic and improbable 17-16 victory, their loyal followers would be best served to jump on the team's playoff express because they clearly have the look of a team of destiny.
First off, when New England's normally placid head coach, Bill Belichick, is seen kissing the owner's wife, slapping fives with his coaches and shaking more hands than the slimiest of politicians following a game, you know it's more than your average win. And with the way this one came about, it's tough not to look ahead and legitimately picture this club in the postseason.
The first half was a complete washout. It was a 30-minute performance when columnists and beat writers search for as many ways as possible to say a young team isn't quite ready to play in a game of this magnitude. The Jets 13-0 lead could have been a lot bigger, but judging by the way the game was unfolding, it didn't seem to matter because the Patriots seemed dumbfounded.
The defense was flat-footed while Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde riddled them during a near-perfect first half in which he completed 15-of-23 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown. With the exception of the final number, all of those marks represented season highs for a half of play.
Offensively things were even worse. Tom Brady spent most of the half trying to avoid decapitation and when he did have time to throw was mostly off target. He went 5-for-11 for a paltry 53 yards before the break, and the offense was held off the board in the first half for the first time this season.
Facing the prospects of having to watch the postseason from their living rooms for the third straight year, the Patriots had major adjustments to make at intermission.
"We were down by 13 points on the road and our season was on the line here as far as competing in the AFC East," said Knute Rockne, er, Belichick of his halftime words. "Either we get it done here in the last 30 minutes or we're going to be looking down the barrel at the Jets."
The Patriots have some options in the playmaking department. They have Brady, who's been remarkable in his 10 starts (now 7-3 as the starter). They have Troy Brown, who's made so many in the past he should have those words emblazoned on his chest.
So with their playoff hopes dangling in the Meadowlands winds, where did the Patriots look for a play? Fred Coleman, of course. So what that the first-year former XFL wideout never had a single catch in his three previous NFL games — all with the Patriots. Brady still looked his way on third-and-three after a Mike Vrabel interception gave the Patriots the ball, and Coleman took the short pass and sprinted 46 yards down to the Jets 4.
Two plays later, Antowain Smith barreled into the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to begin the comeback.
"We got some quick throws and some big runs after the catch," Brown said. "Fred made what I thought was the biggest play of the game and that got us started. We got our confidence rolling and they played like we played in the first half. That was just a great catch across the middle."
It was just one of many second-half plays that pushed the Patriots from a nice story about overachievers to legitimate players come tournament time. Smith took a short pass on the Patriots next possession and turned it into a 40-yard gain to set up another touchdown. That offset a Jets field goal, which would represent the only New York points of the second half.
Linebacker Roman Phifer led a spirited New England defense with nine tackles and the secondary suddenly was in position to knock Testaverde's passes away after watching the Jets receivers get open earlier in the game. Instead of sitting back and waiting for a mistake from the opponent, the Patriots were forcing them all over the field.
Of course, it didn't hurt that the Jets refused to consistently hand the ball off to Curtis Martin, who picked up 87 yards on just 19 carries. But the Patriots pass rush got in Testaverde's face, sacking him twice in the second half and forcing a number of quick throwaways. The Jets were on the run, and the Patriots did what good, experienced, playoff-caliber teams do in that situation: they smelled blood.
"The biggest thing we did was match their intensity in the second half," center Damien Woody said. "Basically, we imposed our will on them in the second half and just got after them."
And once the comeback was complete, courtesy of Adam Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal, the defense refused to allow the Jets any wiggle room. Testaverde converted two clutch third-down throws to make things hairy, but a Matt Stevens blitz on third-and-five forced an incompletion and Terrell Buckley snuffed the drive with a fourth-down interception on the next play.
With 2:02 left and one timeout remaining for the Jets, Testaverde still figured to get one more chance. Not against these Patriots. Smith carried twice to set up third-and-two from the New England 41 before a bruised and battered Brady squirted through the smallest of holes for the first down.
"You could see [Brady] was in a lot of pain and hurting but he ran hard and fought for the first down," Belichick said. "That was as good a run as we had all day and it was by the last guy you'd expect it from."
Brady was nursing sore ribs, likely a product of many big hits he took from the Jets fast and tough defensive front. But that didn't stop him from making one more play, and it didn't stop the Patriots from taking a major step toward a goal that seemed so unlikely when the season began.
"I definitely think this was a defining moment for us," Woody said.
The kind of game that successful teams point to after making the playoffs.