You find out the most about yourself when the chips are down and your back is against the wall. That being the case, the Patriots found out a lot with a 17-16 victory over the New York Jets.
In easily the biggest game for the franchise since the 1998 season, New England was coming up empty throughout the first half. New York's first two possessions put the Patriots in a quick 10-0 hole. The Jets defense made New England's running game non-existent and the passing game was dismal. The Patriots looked to be taking a step backward after a big win over New Orleans in Week 11.
However, in a total about face from the Week Two meeting with New York, the Patriots (7-5) found a way to pull out an all-important division victory. After giving a game to the Jets with costly turnovers, the Patriots stole a win despite showing no signs of life in the first half.
To say the Patriots were struggling in the first half is an understatement. The offense had 67 net yards and was just 1-of-6 on third down. The defense put the team in an early hole by giving up a touchdown on the first possession of the game. New England allowed 61 rushing yards and could only watch as Vinny Testaverde threw for 164 yards and a touchdown. New York converted 4-of-9 on third down, and there was no indication the Patriots would ever get it going.
Despite all this, the Jets lead was just 13-0 heading into halftime. It was gut-check time in the locker room at the break.
"We didn't do much of anything in the first half on offense or defense," said fullback Marc Edwards, who scored the Patriots second touchdown of the day to help redeem himself after two fumbles in the first game against the Jets. "We came in at halftime and the coaches challenged our manhood. We were getting our butts whooped physically. The key to winning games for us has been being physical. We weren't doing that, and after the first series of the second half, it was like, 'Oh man, this could wind up being 34-0."
The New England Patriots take on the New York Jets at The Meadowlands on Sunday, December 2, 2001.
Even with the halftime challenge from the coaching staff, the team didn't exactly come out like a ball of fire to open the second half. A three-and-out series by the offense lost 12 yards and a terrible 19-yard punt by Ken Walter gave New York the ball at the Patriots 36-yard line. Desperation began to set in.
Somebody needed to step up and make a play. Defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell was that man, coming up with two straight plays that began to turn the tide. On first down he stopped Richie Anderson for a 3-yard loss. On the next play he caused the first turnover of the game when he tipped a Testaverde pass, which was then picked off by linebacker Mike Vrabel.
"The atmosphere going into halftime was down because we knew we were not playing our best football," Mitchell said. "We just felt as though we needed to make something happen. When you can disrupt the other team's flow, good things will happen for your team."
Finally there was a sense of momentum for the Patriots. It was up to the offense to make the most of the opportunity, which it did with a touchdown drive. Good teams have to be resourceful, and New England was. For the biggest play of the game on offense, the Patriots went to a most unexpected source: wide receiver Fred Coleman.
On third-and-three, Tom Brady (20-of-28 for 213 yards) found Coleman on a quick slant. Coleman took his first career reception 46 yards down to the Jets 4-yard line, and the Patriots finally got points on the board two plays later on an 4-yard run by Antowain Smith.
"We tried early in the game with the five- and -seven step drops, but they didn't work because of the pressure [the Jets] were getting," said Brady, who improved to 7-3 as the starting quarterback. "We had to get the ball out quicker before we could open up."
The guy who opened the game up was Coleman, the first-year player who spent time with the Chicago Enforcers of the XFL. Mostly a special teams guy since coming to New England, he made the most of his first real chance in the offense.
"I was just excited to catch a ball in a pro game," Coleman said. "I knew our defense had just made a big play, and once we got down there and scored, everyone on the team just got excited. I know I need to be ready if I'm called on, and tonight I was able to do that."
Just how much of a spark did Coleman's reception provide? Before his play the Patriots had run 29 offensive plays for a paltry 60 yards. From that play on, it was 25 plays for 204 yards.
The kicker is that Coleman wouldn't normally be on the field in such a key situation. David Patten suffered a blow to the nose and had to come out briefly, but he was more than happy to see Coleman, the fourth receiver on the Patriots depth chart, come up big.
"That play is where everything started for the offense," Patten said. "It all started with that catch. That's big on his part as a third or fourth receiver to step up in that situation for a catch like that. This game is all about making the most of opportunities, and he definitely did that today."
The fact that this game took a similar path as the first meeting was not lost on the players. In Week Two, New England had much more total yardage, was in the red zone more often and limited the Jets offense, but came up short. In this game, New York had 46 more rushing yards, nearly six more minutes of possession and the more dominant defense.
The Jets also had the only two turnovers of the game and saw their offense falter when it came down to crunch time.
"The team that moves the ball the most doesn't always win the game," Vrabel said. "We've seen that twice now against this team. In the NFL, it is all about sticking around until the fourth quarter and making plays when the opportunity is there. The more you watch these games, the more you believe it's never over. Around the league there are 11 or 12 close games each week, and the team playing better football late usually comes out on top."
With five weeks remaining in the regular season, the Patriots find themselves in a very good position. By earning a season split with New York they moved within 1.5 games of the division lead with a game remaining against first-place Miami. New England not only can control their own playoff destiny, they also have a legitimate shot at winning the AFC East. With a 4-2 record in division play and games remaining with Buffalo and Miami, the Patriots have a good chance of a winning record in division play for the first time since 1997, when they went 7-1 in the East.
"We are one step closer," Mitchell said. "We have all been working for the last eight months to get to this point. We have control of our own destiny, and at this point that is all you can really ask for."
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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