Patriots ousted from playoffs by Jets, 28-21

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Patriots ousted from playoffs by Jets, 28-21

By Art Martone
CSNNE.com

FOXBORO -- After a week of talking the talk, the Jets came into Gillette Stadium Sunday and walked the walk.

Did they ever.

Taking control of the game defensively in the second quarter, New York clamped down on the NFL's highest-scoring offense. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez managed the game masterfully when he had to, and came up with big plays in the fourth quarter when he needed them. And through it all it was the Patriots -- the favored Patriots, the 14-2 Patriots, the (supposedly) Super Bowl-bound Patriots -- who looked befuddled and bewildered in the face of suffocating secondary coverage and unexpected blitz packages.

As a result, it's the Jets heading to the AFC Championship Game and the Patriots heading home after New York's 28-21 victory.

"It's a tough way to end it," said coach Bill Belichick. "We're a better team than we played today."

They certainly looked nothing like the team that won its final seven regular-season games -- including a 45-3 thrashing of New York on Dec. 6 -- and finished with the NFL's best record.

The Jets took command in the second quarter through a combination of defensive schemes that seemed to confuse Tom Brady and a ball-control offense that took advantage of its opportunities. They were aided by uncharacteristic New England mistakes . . . the biggest being a flubbed fake-punt attempt late in the first half when New York was holding a slim 7-3 lead, which led to a Jets touchdown that put them in charge at 14-3.

"We picked the wrong time to play our worst game," said wide receiver Deion Branch.

The Pats were finally able to regain some rhythm offensively in the second half and cut the lead to 14-11 with a touchdown and two-point conversion in the final minute of the third quarter. The score reawakened what had become an almost totally silent Gillette Stadium -- save for the several thousand Jets fan who were enjoying themselves immensely to that point -- and looked like it would set the stage for a rousing fourth quarter.

But then it was the Patriots' defense -- which, to that point, had played credibly -- that collapsed. A blown coverage left Jerricho Cotchery wide open over the middle on a second-and-6 play from the Jets' 29 at the start of the fourth quarter, and he turned it into a 58-yard run-and-catch that moved the ball to the New England 13. Three plays later, on third-and-4 from the 7, Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes on a fade route in the left corner of the end zone, putting New York back in front by 10, 21-11.

The Patriots took possession and began moving the ball, but -- to New York's advantage -- showed almost no sense of urgency and wiped nearly eight minutes off the clock on a drive that ended with the Pats giving up the ball on downs on New York's 34-yard line. At that point -- Jets ahead by 10, with the ball, and little more than five minutes left -- the outcome was inevitable.

"Well, we thought if we can get in the end zone, it's a three-point game and there would be plenty of time left to tie or go ahead," said Brady in explaining why the Pats didn't turn up the intensity on that drive. "We didn't really execute the way we needed to in order to finish that drive, and then we just couldn't get the ball in the end zone when we needed to."

There was plenty of scoring in the final two minutes -- a 35-yard field goal by Shayne Graham with 1:57 to play; a 16-yard touchdown run by Shonn Greene after the Jets recovered the Pats' onside kick; a 13-yard Brady to Deion Branch TD pass in the closing seconds -- but the outcome had been decided by then.

In retrospect, it was decided in the first half. The Patriots moved the ball with ease on their first two possessions, but -- in what was perhaps a bit of foreshadowing -- came away with only three points. The first drive was shortcircuited when Brady threw his first interception since Oct. 17, overshooting BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a screen attempt at the Jets' 28 and getting picked by linebacker David Harris, who was run down by Alge Crumpler at the Pats' 12 after taking it back 52 yards.

The Pats' defense stood tall, stopping the Jets cold, and New York came away empty-handed when Nick Folk missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt. The Patriots resumed their attack, going from their 21 to Jets' 7 (big play: 29-yard completion from Brady to Crumpler that got the ball to the New York 12), but Crumpler dropped a catchable pass in the end zone on third down and the Pats had to settle for a 34-yard field goal from Graham and a 3-0 lead.

"3 points down after those 2 drives is not bad," Tweeted ex-Jets great Joe Namath, and he was right.

"We talked all week about fast starts and getting ahead of these guys and playing ahead," said Brady. "We had some opportunities there in the first quarter and really let those slip away."

It was as if the game turned on Crumpler's drop. The Jets' offense, held to 36 yards in the first quarter, found its footing. While it didn't immediately pay off in points, it did pay off in field position: pinning the Patriots back deep in their own territory, and giving the Jets the ball consistently near midfield.

Sanchez finally capitalized with 10:24 to go in the second quarter, driving the Jets 49 yards in five plays and hitting LaDainian Tomlinson with a seven-yard touchdown pass that put New York ahead -- to stay, as it turned out -- by a 7-3 score.

New England made its biggest error in the final two minutes. Faced with a fourth-and-4 from their own 38, the Pats tried a rare gadget play -- a fake punt -- but Patrick Chung fumbled the direct snap and was nailed for a one-yard loss.

"We just made a bad mistake on the fake punt," saidBelichick. When asked to elaborate, he responded: "I'm not going intothat."

Punter Zoltan Mesko, however, said in the locker room that Chung called the play.

The Jets took immediate advantage. Tomlinson ran for 22 yards on the next two plays and, on a third-on-4 from the 15, Sanchez hit Braylon Edwards with a TD pass that made the score 14-3.

Sanchez finished the game at a workmanlike 16-for-25 for 194 yards -- but with three touchdowns -- and had the edge on Brady, who was sacked five times and wound up 29-for-45 for 299 yards.

"I don't know if we confused Brady," said Jets safety Eric Smith. "It was about making him take the snap and then read the defense . . . instead of just lining up, getting under the center and knowing where to go with the ball."

"In order to score points, you've got to consistently be able to puttogether plays, and we could never really do that, or find a rhythm,and they made a lot of plays," Bradysaid. "They didn't make many mistakes. We made too many mistakes, there was too many plays that weren'tthe way we drew them up."

Nor was it the way they drew up the ending to a delightfully surprising -- but ultimately disappointing -- season.

Art Martone can be reached at amartone@comcastsportsnet.com.

Slater missing from start of Patriots practice

Slater missing from start of Patriots practice

FOXBORO -- The Patriots were without two key members of their special teams units at Friday's practice. 

Both Matthew Slater (foot) and Jordan Richards (knee) were not spotted at the start of the team's most recent workout. Defensive lineman Woodrow Hamilton (illness) was also missing. 

Hamilton and Richards did not participate in Thursday's practice. Slater was present on Wednesday and Thursday after missing Sunday's game against the Jets. 

The Patriots did have a Gronkowski back on the field Friday, but it wasn't Rob, who was expected to undergo back surgery in Los Angeles. It was fullback Glenn Gronkowski, who has apparently been re-signed to the Patriots practice squad for his fourth go-round on New England's 10-man unit. Practice-squad tight end Kennard Backman, who has not been at Patriots practice since Wednesday, has likely been released in order to make room for Gronkowski. 

 

Curran: Patriots holding all the cards with Gronkowski contract

Curran: Patriots holding all the cards with Gronkowski contract

FOXBORO – If the Patriots ever do file for divorce from Rob Gronkowski, it’s not going to be because they don’t like what they are paying him.

When the team picked up the $10 million option on Gronk’s contract in March, activating the back half of his six-year, $54M contract, the Patriots got the upper hand business-wise.

Gronk is signed through the 2019 season – same as Tom Brady. His salaries from 2017 to 2019 are $4.25M, $8M and $9M. His cap hits are $7M, $11M and $12M.

The salary cap for 2016 is $153M. Between now and 2019, it could balloon to more than $170M. 

Gronk fits neatly under it. The franchise tag for tight ends in 2016 was $9M. Gronk is on the books to play for less than half of that in salary in 2017.

That explains why Gronk sent that tweet back in March,  passive aggressively kicking rocks about the “pay cut” he took when the Patriots picked up his option. And it’s why, throughout the summer, his agent Drew Rosenhaus was trying to get the Patriots to the table to work out a new deal for his client.

This back injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Gronkowski business-wise.

Even if the Patriots tore up the final three years of the deal and gave him a new contract without knowing how he’ll come out of this latest back surgery, the new deal would have to be performance-based and loaded with playing-time clauses.

In that case, as opposed to self-preservation to ensure he can walk fairly well at 50, Gronk, now 27, may feel compelled to play even when he’s not “right.” And, if he’s playing while less than 100 percent, will he be able to play with the abandon that made him the transcendent player he’s been?

That’s if Gronkowski and his Gronktourage would even agree to that kind of a contract, which I’m not sure they would.

They will want security. They may also feel they are owed security because of the physical sacrifices Gronk has made in his seven-year career. And that’s not even taking into consideration the windfall the franchise has realized both financially and in public perception because an inimitable player has been on their roster for seven years. The team should expect a request that they relax their generally hard-line bargaining

While the Patriots have had a strong relationship with Gronk’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, this contract is – on face value – embarrassing for Rosenhaus at this point.

That Gronk “won” for the first portion of the contract isn’t going to be recalled. But he did win. Gronk signed the deal on June 8, 2012. Within months, he fractured his arm on a PAT attempt against the Colts. Then – after having a plate inserted – he broke it again in the playoffs right where the plate ended. An infection ensued. Gronk also had back surgery that offseason. He very slowly returned to action in 2013, missing the first six games. He returned for Week 7, caught 39 balls for 592 yards over the next seven games, then had his season ended by an ACL blowout.

At that juncture, the security of the contract was a godsend. But the way those two years went – the rushing back to the field, the plate insertion, the infection – has shaped the entire relationship with the team since.  

And considering Gronk’s father, Gordie, was a successful businessman himself and sent four sons to the NFL, there may be no more well-informed family out there as to the harsh realities of the business of football.

Beyond just knowing how the sausage gets made, though, the Gronkowskis have been considering Rob’s football mortality and making sure to maximize his earnings since he was 19.

Not hypothetically either. After Gronk’s sophomore season, he declared for the draft despite having ruptured a disk for the first time. The reason? If he played another down of college football his $4M insurance policy was void. If he suffered a career-ending injury, he would realize no dough from the sport. So he entered the draft to start making as much as he could before the body gave out. 

Which is to their credit. The kid had a skill, he loved playing the sport, making sure he’s well-compensated for plying that skill for as long as possible is what any parent should do.

But we’re approaching a crossroads now. Will Gronk want to continue playing? Will his family encourage him to? Will he even be cleared?

And even if those answers all came back in the affirmative, would the Gronkowskis sign off on Rob playing for relative peanuts compared to what lesser tight ends are receiving?

The Patriots have the favorable hand right now. The young man may well be on an operating table still, so this would not be the time to play it.

But the hard realities of that contract are impossible to ignore. And at some point, they’ll come to a head.