By Danny Picard
FOXBORO -- Bend but don't break.
That's been the phrase which has labeled this year's Patriots defense. It's not the sexiest slogan on the face of the earth, but entering Monday night's AFC East showdown with the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium, it had worked.
And it worked on nine different occasions.
But regardless of what they tell you, no NFL defense wants to go through an entire 17-week regular season plus-playoffs with a "bend but don't break" mentality. No matter how good your offense may be, that usually doesn't result in a hoist of the Lombardi Trophy at season's end.
The Patriots, regardless of what they tell you, are no exception.
Tom Brady and the rest of New England's offense put up 45 points on Monday night. It was good enough for a win against the Jets. On most nights, 45 points is good enough for a win against anybody.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that the Patriots offense is the team's biggest strength, and that it's the aspect of New England's game that has to step up and carry the load each and every week, if the Pats want to be playing in Dallas in February.
That was the thought, at least, entering Monday night. Hell, Patriots players were the first to tell you that.
"Bend but don't break," their defensive players would say, after each and every win this season.
But each and every time a Patriots defender would respond in those words, they'd imply that that slogan wasn't meant to be a permanent staple for this young defense.
On Monday night, they took that next step, and played their first 60-minute defensive game of the season, forcing Mark Sanchez to throw three interceptions, and allowing only three points in what was undoubtedly the biggest game of the year.
"That's something we've been talking about since the beginning of the year, 60 minutes," said Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington. "And I think today we finally put it together, a complete game for 60 minutes. We had one of the best weeks, the team felt, of practice all year. If we keep practicing like that and playing like that, we'll be in good shape."
"We used our time wisely," said safety James Sanders, who made New England's third interception of the game. "We prepared extremely well. Like coach Bill Belichick said after the game, we had our best week of practice of the whole year. And we put it together for 60 minutes. It was the first time all season we put it together for 60 minutes.
"Each week we're getting closer, we're getting closer, we're getting closer, and I think we went out there and made a nice statement tonight."
The Jets scored their only three points on a 49-yard field goal in the opening minutes of the second quarter. From there, it wasn't as if the Jets didn't have chances to put more points on the board. They did, but the Patriots' defense made three huge plays in the second half that killed any rallies that New York was going to make.
The first came on a Brandon Spikes interception, which ended a 60-yard drive on 2nd-and-8 inside the New England 10-yard line. Sanchez was looking for Braylon Edwards in the middle of the end zone, but Spikes leaped up and picked off the pass at around the 2-yard line, ending the threat, and leading to a 93-yard Patriots drive which resulted in a Wes Welker touchdown and a New England 31-3 lead.
On New York's very next possession, and just the second play of that possession, Sanchez tried to go deep down the right sideline to Edwards, and Devin McCourty picked off the underthrown ball at the New England's 6-yard line. The Patriots drove 94 yards, resulting in an Aaron Hernandez touchdown for the 38-3 Patriots lead.
Sanchez was intercepted for a third time on his next possession, when he threw a ball right into the hands of Sanders at New England's 44-yard line, who ran it down to the Jets' 28. It resulted in a 28-yard Patriots drive and a BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown run for a 45-3 lead.
"We got our butts whooped tonight," said Sanchez. "Flat out, that's the way you got to say it.
"They did a great job," added the Jets' quarterback. "McCourty made a great play on the underthrown ball. Spikes made a good play on a ball I threw a little too flat. And then, I don't even know who picked the other one, Sanders, he had a good play there. We didn't get the route communicator right, and I was throwing to a spot, and we weren't quite there, and then their pass rush did a really good job. So, across the board, they had a really good game. It looked like they played mistake-free, and then our mistakes really hurt us."
The Patriots hadn't played mistake-free football on the defensive end, for a full 60 minutes, all season long. Their goal was to get to that point slowly but surely.
Until they did so, they believed that the "bend but don't break" mentality was good enough -- given their high-powered offense -- to get into the playoffs.
On Monday night, New England's defense, once again, refused to break. This time, in the biggest game of the year.
But unlike the previous 11 games, there wasn't even a bend.
Danny Picard is on Twitter at http:twitter.comdannypicard