On a 1st-and-10 from the New England 18-yard line with 2:01 remaining in the game, Mark Sanchez was given a gift from the football gods. The Jets lost this game because Coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano were too conservative, blowing a chance to beat Belichick and Brady for the first time since that memorable 2011 playoff game.
Sanchez had his moment to silence the critics for at least a few weeks. With the game tied 23-23 and the Jets rolling on offense, all Sanchez needed to do was convert one first down, and the game was all but over.
But instead, Tony Sparano, a guy whose play calls have been as confusing as Brian Schottenheimer, didn't trust Sanchez in a time where he should have, and it cost the Jets the game, and a golden opportunity to take a commanding lead in the AFC East.
Let's rewind to what happened before this drive in the fourth quarter.
The Jets were down 10 when Mark Sanchez had his best drive of the year, going 92 yards for a touchdown. On a 1st-and-14 from their own 4-yard line, Sanchez stayed strong and converted a 21-yard pass to Stephen Hill. The Jets were plagued with awful field position the whole game, and this play was a huge confidence booster for the offense. They needed to get some momentum going, and fast.
After a Shonn Greene no-gain, Sanchez then threw it to Hill for seven and Kerley for 19, bringing the Jets into New England territory. On 3rd-and-7 from the New England 46, Sanchez was clutch again, completing a pass to Lex Hilliard. Another Sanchez-Hill completion set them up with a 1st-and-10 at the New England 22-yard line.
On another third down during the drive, Sanchez was strong again, converting the first down this time with Kerley and taking the Jets to the New England 11. Sanchez threw it to Keller for the score and to bring the Jets within three.
Never has Sanchez looked so complete, so focused and so confident. He was ready to win this game and was carrying the team on his shoulders the way Eli would for the Giants.
The defense held the Patriots offense to a 3rd-and-out, giving the Jets the ball with 4:19 remaining on their own 35-yard line. Sanchez took control of the offense again, throwing a bomb to Keller on the right side for a 21-yard completion.
Joe McKnight runs took the Jets to the New England 25-yard line, but on a 3rd-and-4, Stephen Hill dropped the biggest pass of the game, and threw away the chance to beat Big Brother. A completely wide open Hill couldn't hold on.
After a Folk FG tied it up, the Jets caught the biggest break of the year with a McCourty fumble. The Jets had the ball on the New England 18 with another chance to win the game.
The Hill dropped pass messed with Sparano and Ryan's heads so much that the Jets went into ultra-conservative mode, trying to find a way not to lose instead of finding a way to win.
A Tebow 2-yard run took them to the two-minute warning, followed by a McKnight 1-yard run and a Sanchez sack.
Taking the sack was the obvious move to make sure New England needed to take a timeout, but how is it that after dominating the Patriots for an entire quarter throwing the ball, the Jets now don't let Sanchez have a shot to win it?
Why not trying for Kerley in the end zone? Or Keller for 10 yards? The play calls here were as conservative as they get. The Jets can't do this on the road against New England.
Ryan was scared that Sanchez would throw away the game with a turnover and played it as safe as he could. The Jets added another three to the score and put the game in the hands of the defense.
But even here Ryan was still using the same mentality that he did with the offense. Instead of taking those chances he usually does, he let the defense sit back in prevent defense.
The only thing it prevented was the Jets winning the game.
Three quick passes from Brady led the Patriots from their own 21 to the Jets 32 in seconds. The Jets were afraid. Brady knew this, and led the Patriots to overtime.
They would lose the coin toss, the Patriots would score and Sanchez would ultimately make his worst decision of the game at the worst possible time. After playing three-plus seasons in the league, he still doesn't know to tuck the ball away at the appropriate time.
Jets lose, Patriots win. Just like that.
Now, instead of 4-3 and 3-0 in the division, with huge road wins at Miami and at New England, the Jets are 3-4 in the mediocre AFC, 2-1 in the division and face a hungry, and rested, Miami team at home.
In the NFL, where every win is important, and every division win is essential, the Jets threw away their best chance at having a commanding lead on the rest of the division.
Even with Holmes and Revis out, the Jets had their chance to really take control of the division for the first time in the Ryan era. But Ryan, usually strong and confident, was weak and scared, and this cost the Jets big time.
The Jets better focus on beating Miami at home, or else 3-5 will set the team back to panic mode as they head for the second half of the season.
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