The Play That Cost the 2008 New England Patriots the Playoffs
Sure, in many ways it was, but with Brady going down just fifteen offensive plays into 2008 there was still a full season of football to be played. So, ultimately the 2008 Patriots were not defined by a lack of Tom Brady, they were defined by not being able to beat any of the elite teams they faced.
In a season where the AFC East was decided by the third tie-breaker (conference record) there were a handful of plays that, had they gone the other way, might've put division champs crown upon the Patriots' lofty brow.
You never truly know when you're making the mistakes that will come back to haunt you.
At Indianapolis, some may point to Jabar Gaffney's dropped touchdown pass or David Thomas' unnecessary roughness penalty as the moments that cost the Pats at least a shot at overtime, and potentially a win.
But there was another play that I believe was truly the difference in the 2008 Patriots season and that play came in overtime against the New York Jets in Week 11.
At half-time it looked like it was going to be a Jets romp, but the Pats clawed their way back into the game, culminating with Matt Cassel threading a touchdown pass to Randy Moss as time expired to force overtime.
New England had amassed over 500 yards of total offense and looked primed for a huge come-from-behind win. But, as fate would have it, the Jets won the coin toss and chose to receive the ball in overtime.
When the New York offense took the field on their 20-yard line it was impossible to know that the playoff fate of the Patriots hung in the balance.
On first down, Pierre Woods, in his first start filling in for an injured Adalius Thomas, sacked Brett Favre for a loss of five yards. Then Gary Guyton broke up a pass intended for Leon Washington on second down, forcing the Jets into a third-and-15 situation.
This was the defining moment of the 2008 season.
Given how the Patriots offense was clicking on all cylinders, it's likely a stop on this third down would've given New England a good shot at winning the game.
But that is easier said than done. Third down was the Achilles Heel for the 2008 New England Patriots, where they ranked 26th in the NFL in forcing a punt.
As Brett Favre dropped back, the Patriots rushed only three defenders, dropping the rest into coverage. Unfortunately, Jerod Mayo, who had his "coming out party" this game with a game-high 20 tackles, dropped to the wrong zone leaving Jet TE Dustin Keller with a seam down the middle.
Favre saw the mistake and exploited it. Keller made the catch and busted through Brandon Meriweather to pick up the first down.
You can see this play here at the 5:10 mark.
In and of itself, this was just another third down conversion given up by the New England defense. There were a lot of them in 2008. The Pats gave up a first down on 44 percent of the third-downs they faced.
The Jets were still 35 yards from the edge of Jay Feely's field goal range, so yes, there were other chances for the Pats to make a stop.
But none were as favorable as the 3rd-and-15.
The Jets' drive continued and it was Jay Feely's 34-yard Field Goal that put the final dagger through the hearts of the Patriots.
The Patriots only lost one more game in 2008, a blowout to the Pittsburgh Steelers, before sweeping their final four games to bring them to a tie record-wise for the division lead at 11-5.
But it was too late, the tie-breaker went to Miami by virtue of their AFC conference record which was one game better than the Pats', after the Dolphins feasted on the easiest schedule in the NFL.
You never know when your fatal flaw is going to hurt you the worst, but now it's clearly fitting that a mistake on third-and-long was ultimately a play that might've kept New England out of the playoffs.
It's amazing that a simple mistake by a rookie linebacker who had, until that point, been playing the best game of his pro career, might've been the difference between hosting a playoff game against Baltimore or booking tee times.
Who knows, maybe the Jets would've stopped Cassel, Moss and Welker even if the Pats had gotten the ball back. Or maybe it would've ended in a tie. Or maybe Brett Favre would've spontaneously retired before their next possession.
"Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda" is not something the New England Patriots dwell on, however it's still interesting to look back upon the seemingly insignificant plays that will define your season.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Community Leader and the author of numerous unproduced screenplays. He can be reached at PatriotsPropaganda@gmail.com.
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