The absolute worst part about the way the Patriots lost yesterday is that the call on the field was the right one. Technically, at least. And there’s really nothing more frustrating than losing on a technicality. It’s like a golfer blowing a tournament after screwing up his scorecard or a contestant nailing Final Jeopardy but forgetting to write “Who is . . .” at the start.
It’s not like the Tuck Rule game, though. So many people have used that piece of history as evidence to why the Patriots and their fans shouldn’t be disturbed by what happened yesterday at MetLife Stadium. As if the personal foul on Chris Jones was some kind of random karmic retribution. But there’s really no comparison. After all, the Tuck Rule was a penalty with precedence. It existed before that play, and had even been called against the Patriots earlier that season. It was also on the ball, and ignoring the rule would have directly affected the outcome of the game. Once it hit the booth, it couldn’t have been ignored. And even after the call, the Pats still needed another first down. They still needed Adam Vinatieri to hit one of the most difficult field goals in NFL history. They still needed to win in overtime. In other words, they still needed to earn it in many more ways than one.
By comparison, the referee went out of his way to call yesterday’s personal foul. It was an infraction that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, because it had literally zero impact on the outcome of the play. And in the aftermath, the Jets were made. There was no first down needed. No miracle kick through the snow. No extra overtime period. All it took was three runs for negative one yard and a Nick Folk chip shot. A better comparison to that Raiders/Patriots game would be if the Pats had moved into field goal position after Charles Woodson was called for defensive holding on an overtime draw to Antoine Smith.
The Tuck Rule may have given the Patriots another life, but Rule 9 Section 1 Article 3 literally gave the Jets a victory. And that stings. It will continue to sting. In the end, one referee’s arbitrary enforcement of a rule that’s been ignored for the first two months of the season — and as noted by Mike Reiss, had been ignored for the first three-plus quarters of that very game — will be felt throughout the rest of the year, as the Pats fight for another division title, and jockey for home field in the playoffs. It’s a horrible way for any game to end, regardless of which team suffers the bad break.
For that team, it’s preferable to just lose a game entirely on your own merit. To be able to say: “I sucked” or “we sucked” and hit the pillow that night knowing that you just weren’t good enough. That you had no chance. Instead of tossing and turning amid fantasies of hitting Jerome Boger in the face with a pie.
Of course, as it is, you can argue that the Patriots weren’t good enough yesterday. That they did deserve to lose. That the final score, regardless of how it came about, was what they had coming after blowing a 21-10 halftime lead, sucking for most of the second half, and then failing to capitalize on the opening possession of overtime. You can say that Brady wasn’t good enough. And you know what? He wasn’t. He was inaccurate, and not only on the deep ball. He was 4-of-20 on passes of more than 10 yards. He threw a devastating pick-six that turned the tide in the third, and would have thrown another had Calvin Pace not temporarily borrowed Aaron Dobson’s hands. The offense, in general, was 1-for-12 on third down, and that doesn’t cut it.
You can say that the offensive line wasn’t good enough. And you know what? They weren’t. Brady was sacked four times, the running game never got going and Nate Solder continues to struggle with any and all action from the blind side.
You can say that the defense, playing without its two captains (Vince Wilfork/Jerod Mayo) and its most impactful player (Aqib Talib), wasn’t good enough. And you know what? Aside from Chandler Jones and Logan Ryan’s pick-six, they weren’t. The Jets came in with the 29th ranked offense in the NFL and for had their way with the Pats, most notably the secondary, for long stretches on Sunday.
You can say that the coaching wasn’t good enough. And you know what? It wasn’t. Rex Ryan went toe to toe with Belichick, and the coach’s misinterpretation of the “pushing” rule put the ref in position to call it in the first place.
In the end, you can point to a bunch of reasons why the Pats weren’t entirely deserving of escaping MetLife with a win. But then again, isn’t that the case in most non-blowout NFL games? Can’t you go back and do the same thing with the Jets performance? Can’t you go back and do the same thing with every Patriots victory this season? Week 1 at Buffalo. Weeks 2 and 3 vs. the Jets and Buccaneers. Week 4 at Atlanta. And certainly last week against the Saints.
In each one, there were trends and developments that could have bitten the Pats in the ass; plenty of reasons why they should’ve lost. But ultimately, they did more when it mattered more. That’s what this league is all about. That’s what decides games, titles and legacies. And on Sunday, the Pats were doing just that. The offense was inconsistent, and obviously had a chance at the start of OT, but it also came through on that final drive of regulation. The only reason that final drive was even possible was that the defense had stepped up and shut down the Jets, blanking them in the fourth quarter, and then responding to leave Folk with a low, low percentage 56-yard try in overtime.
Without that personal foul, New England would’ve taken over at the Jets 46, less than 20 yards from very realistic Stephen Gostkowski range. Would they have done it? Who knows? But they deserved the chance.
At least as much as they simply just deserved to lose.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine