In the depth of winter, amid the deafening roar of the New England Patriots’ faithful, there was a moment of incredulity as Shonn Greene’s cleats kicked up the Gillette Stadium turf when he cut around the corner of the Patriots’ defense, evaded a lunging Jerod Mayo and headed towards the end zone to give the New York Jets a 28-14 lead with just 1:41 remaining.
Passionate Jets fans began to think of the ways that Jets’ teams of yore have managed to squander seemingly insurmountable leads in playoffs past, or otherwise fall victim to unusual circumstances that resulted in the Jets' losses to reputedly inferior teams.
Before the AFC Championship game in 1982, during the heyday of the New York Sack Exchange, the Jets fielded one of their most talented teams ever and entered the game after drubbing the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders.
Don Shula and the Dolphins unleashed a Simon Barsinister-style man-made monsoon on the Orange Bowl field before the game. This deprived the Jets' speed merchants like Freeman McNeil and Wesley Walker of sure footing, contributing to a muddy 14-0 loss in the AFC Championship Game.
In 1986, the Jets led the Cleveland Browns 20-10 with approximately four minutes left. Jets' fans writhed in agony in their barcaloungers when Mark Gastineau speared Bernie Kosar on a 3rd-and-25. Gastineau drew a personal foul, resuscitating the Browns, who came from behind to beat the Jets in overtime.
In the 1998 AFC Championship Game against the Broncos, the Jets held a commanding 10-0 lead on a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown, but Vinny Testaverde and the Jets managed to self-destruct and lose the game.
And even last year, in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts, the Jets had the lead and were executing an impressive smash mouth drive, when Shonn Greene suffered a rather bizarre rib injury which deflated the drive and the Jets.
The Jets have always been one Dan Marino fake-spike away from finding a way to lose a game of any great importance, ever since the now grainy images captured Joe Namath jogging off the Orange Bowl field on January 12,1969, wagging an oversized finger signaling that the Jets were No. 1—Super Bowl Champions.
Feeling such pessimism in the face of a game of big plays by the Jets is not absurd. Greene used the football as a prop pillow, laying down in the end zone and pretending to go to sleep after a Jets' victory. He drew a 15 yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct to be enforced on the ensuing kickoff.
Sure enough, this gave the Patriots great field position, enabling them to start their next drive at the 41. Predictably, Tom Brady went to work against the Jets' prevent defense, and quickly drove the Patriots for a touchdown in little over a minute, cutting the lead to a single touchdown with 24 seconds left.
The Patriots had a final chance at a miracle.
They had squandered an excellent chance at recovering an onside kick earlier in the fourth quarter, when the ball skittered through Darrelle Revis' expectant hands, and past a Patriot. Fortunately, the always overconfident Antonio Cromartie scooped it up on the run and sprinted down the right sideline on the play that set up Shonn Greene's touchdown run. On this occasion, time seemed to stop as Eric Smith cleanly fielded Shayne Graham's onside kick. After one kneel-down snap, the Jets had avoided a Pisarcikian fate.
The game had started in a fashion that risked veering into "same old Jets" territory. After the Patriots started driving toward the Jets' endzone in the first quarter, David Harris intercepted a Tom Brady pass at the New York 30 yard line, and rumbled 58 yards before being tackled at the New England 12.
After the Jets lost yards on two consecutive plays, Nick Folk somehow managed to miss a 30 yard field goal, and the New England crowd roared with glee. My mind wandered to another New England setting, at Walden Pond, in 1854, when Henry David Thoreau must have been envisioning Jets fans, when he wrote, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."
Sure enough, Brady got the ball back and drove the Patriots down the field. While Shaun Ellis sacked Brady and stopped the drive, Shayne Graham converted a 34 yard field goal, leaving Jets' fans to wonder why the Patriots can make the kick look so easy, while the Jets' field goal unit provides an excitement level akin to watching the late tight-rope master Karl Wallenda traverse Niagara Falls.
However, soon there were signs that Rex Ryan's team is different from those same old Jets. On third down with six yards to go from the New England 45 yard line, Sanchez evaded the Patriot pass rush, motioned to Braylon Edwards to go deep, and hit him with a beautiful over the shoulder 37 yard pass down on the left sideline. Two plays later, Sanchez rifled a seven yard out pattern to LaDanian Tomlinson who deftly caught the ball just as he turned his head around to look for the pass, and knifed into the end zone to put the Jets ahead.
Later in the second quarter, Patrick Chung of the Patriots attempted a run on a fake punt and fumbled the ball, resulting his being stopped short of a first down. After two Tomlinson runs and an incompletion, Sanchez zipped a pass to Braylon Edwards who dragged two Patriots into the end zone and enabled the Jets to claim a 14-3 lead at the half.
The Jets had been here before, including just last year. Would they go into their "prevent offense" shell and allow the Patriots to reclaim the momentum and take the game away from them? Or did the Jets believe the Rex Ryan mantra that they were different, new Jets?
There were lingering concerns. The Jets stopped the Patriots on their first two drives of the second half, but neglected to capitalize, including failing to fall on the ball when Calvin Pace sacked Brady and knocked the ball free. Sure enough, Tom Brady drove the Patriots methodically down nearly the entire length of the field, culminating in a 2 yard touchdown toss to Alge Crumpler. The Patriots tricked the Jets' defense on the two-point conversion that followed, cutting the Jets' lead to 14-11 with 13 seconds left in the third quarter. The stage was set for another in a long string of Jets' playoff collapses.
However, when the Jets got the ball back, Mark Sanchez re-ignited their engines. After a short pass to Keller, he perfectly executed a timing pattern to Jerricho Cotchery, who broke up the right sideline, hurdling a Patriots' defender and miraculously remaining in bounds during a 58 yard jaunt to the New England 13. Soon thereafter, Sanchez threw a seven yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the far corner of the end zone. Holmes snagged the rather flat fade pass while dragging his knee just inbounds, coming up with yet another clutch catch in a season full of them.
The Jets' lead of 21-11 hardly seemed safe with a full 13 minutes left to play. But Ryan's strategy of mixing up the pass rush while having a large group of cornerbacks and safeties making it hard for the Patriots' smallish receivers to release from the line paid off. Brady was repeatedly hit, and the Jets' defensive backs aggressive and physical play seemed to surprise the Patriot's receivers, who were accustomed to free releases from the line of scrimmage.
After the Patriots finally mustered a field goal to narrow the Jets' lead to 28-21 with 1:57 to play, the Patriots attempted the onside kick which resulted in Cromartie's heroic dash, and set the stage for Greene's victorious scamper off right tackle.
In the dog days of summer in Cortland, New York, Rex Ryan wrote "Soon to be Champs" on the team's logo sticker on the ESPN bus when asked to sign his name. He was unapologetic for his bold statement, as he has been for each gale of bluster that he has unleashed during the twists and turns of the 2010 season.
Indeed, the Jets have found the right coach for them, one who can emit the hurricane-force wind necessary to blow away the "same old Jets" label that has been ingrained in the psyche of this franchise since that glorious sunny day in Miami in Super Bowl III.
If Rex Ryan were a poet, having disenfranchised the Patriots of their expected playoff run to the Super Bowl, he might also borrow the words of New England poet Robert Frost and swap the word "playoffs" for "woods."
These woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
After all, as Shonn Greene discovered, a football is a pillow upon which the Jets are enjoying their wildest playoff dreams.