Seven observations from the Patriots' 28-21 playoff loss to the Jets:
1. Closer look at Jets' plan on defense. The question many are asking is what the Jets did to stop the Patriots' offense. They didn't bring the house. A lot of the time, they brought only three or four rushers, but the question was which three or four. At the beginning of the game, when it was a four-man look -- whether it was man or zone -- the fourth rusher lined up at the defensive end position and was a defensive back, Marquice Cole.
So you had a situation in which an offensive tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, was blocking a small defensive back. That was the Jets daring the Patriots to run the ball. When the Patriots did run it, they did it successfully. The Jets were willing to bite that bullet.
A key play came early in the second quarter when Tom Brady was sacked by cornerback Drew Coleman. It might have seemed like a blitz, but it was only a four-man rush. Again, the big question was "Which four are coming?" On that play, the four rushers were OLB Jason Taylor, ILB David Harris, DE Shaun Ellis and Coleman. They rushed while linebacker Calvin Pace dropped off in zone coverage over the short middle of the field. Deciphering who the rushers are is where the problem lies.
The other aspect was how the Jets rerouted receivers. That showed up early in the second quarter when linebacker Bryan Thomas lined up to the offensive right and the Patriots had a receiver stack with Deion Branch and Wes Welker, with Danny Woodhead motioning in to form a bunch. Before Thomas rushed, his goal was to disrupt the timing and hit as many receivers as he could. After he did that, he continued on a path to the quarterback. On the same play, the Jets had Cole, the defensive back, lined up at a defensive end spot bull-rushing tight end Rob Gronkowski. What you saw was the Jets giving up some in the pass rush by doing that, but it was effective because it gave the illusion of complex coverages and complex looks to the offense. It created confusion and miscommunication for the offense and disrupted the timing of the routes by being physical and jamming receivers.
The Jets had different players filling these roles. The game plan and deceptions, at points in the game, reminded me of what we had used against the Indianapolis Colts in the past. We always believed that when you're playing quarterbacks like a Peyton Manning or in this case Tom Brady, disguise is important and sometimes you have to fall on your sword and realize that pressure is going to be hard to generate with a standard rush. So you ask the question: "How else can we use those players?" You bump them out and attack bunch formations. You let them be physical with receivers in the vicinity of the seven-man box. That helps you throw off the timing of the offense. When you do that, it can give more time for players such as Ellis, your interior rushers, to get pressure when going up against the interior three offensive linemen.
2. Impact of Tom Brady's early interception. Although the Jets sounded very confident last week with their words, the element of doubt was still there. Talking trash can be a great way to hide the feeling of doubt. For the Patriots, it was vital for them to get off to a good start to validate the doubt the Jets might have had in their minds. A first-possession touchdown not only would have gotten the Jets thinking but would have reminded them of the 45-3 loss on Dec. 6. Also, the young Patriots team needed that fast start for their own confidence; when they started fast all year, they were never stopped.
It reminded me of something from 2007. In the Super Bowl, we played another team from New York, and many people felt we were the better team. Jim Brown came to talk to us one day after practice at Sun Devil Stadium, and one of the things he said is that when you're playing in a situation like that, it's important to get off to a fast start. "Don't give these guys hope." If you let them stick around, you never know what can happen in this game. This year, I felt the same way about this game.
So although the first interception by Brady (which halted the team's first drive of the game) didn't result in any points, the momentum it created was more important than any points the Jets might have scored. The New York defense felt good about itself after that, being the first team to intercept Brady since Oct. 17. That gave the Jets the confidence they needed to ride for the rest of the game.
In addition to Brady's interception, tight end Alge Crumpler's drop in the end zone on the next series also was big. It was a four-point swing, with the Patriots settling for a field goal.
3. Finality of the moment. Going into the game, I felt like whichever team lost was going to go through the longest offseason of the players' lives. The Patriots are starting that process today.
Not only did they lose in the playoffs but they lost to a rival. And not only did they lose to a rival but it was the New York Jets. Put that all together, and they will be hearing about this for a long time. Players will go into the locker room today to have their season-ending meeting, and it's somber, to say the least.
One of the signs of the finality of the moment is seeing Don Brocher, the head equipment manager, in the middle of the locker room handing you an extra-large trash bag. The trash bag is for all the things in your locker so they can clean it in the offseason. I think a lot of people can think of a metaphor for what that trash bag represents.
Unfortunately for the Patriots, this is their second consecutive playoff loss. When was the last time the Patriots won a playoff game? It was the AFC Championship Game in 2007, and that's a question the Patriots will hear all offseason. When this happens and you're a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, it can be tough because you came into the playoffs and went one-and-done. Unlike a team that won a wild-card game, you don't even have that one playoff victory to hang your hat on.
4. Deion Branch and trash talk. After the game, receiver Deion Branch talked about some of the Jets showing a lack of class. I'm not with him on this one. I'm sure he felt terribly about the loss, but I think if the Patriots had won this game, they'd have had a similar reaction at the end of the game.
In playoff games like this, whether it's against the Colts, Chargers or Jets, there is always a lot of trash talk on the field. It could come from Brady, Vince Wilfork. I was involved with it many times. It happens on the field. Emotions are flying; things are said; and, after you win a game like this, you celebrate. In the playoffs, everything is magnified.
In 2006, when we beat the San Diego Chargers, players stood on the logo and did Shawne Merriman's "Lights Out" dance. In the 45-3 victory over the Jets in the regular season, Patriots players were celebrating by doing the "Jet" around the field with their arms outstretched. So to see the Jets fly their Jets around the field and in the end zone, and Shonn Greene use the football as a pillow because he was putting the Patriots to sleep, that's what you should have expected to see. It was a knockout blow. The game was over. Rex Ryan was right when he said it was the second biggest game in the Jets' franchise history. They deserved to celebrate. It's all within the game, but it's more magnified when it ends a team's season.
5. Shaun Ellis breaks through. The Jets have had a lot of disappointment in the past, and sometimes you can look at a player and it sums up that disappointment. To me, defensive lineman Shaun Ellis has been that player for the Jets. He's in his 11th year, and I think there comes a point when you start to recognize that "enough is enough." I vividly remember Ellis from the 2008 season -- when we had lost Brady to injury and Matt Cassel stepped in -- slamming his helmet to the ground. The Jets probably thought this was the time they had the Patriots, with Brady out, but we won the game. I've kept that image in my mind when thinking about the frustrations that the Jets have had in recent years.
On Sunday, however, Ellis erased it. He manhandled every member of the Patriots' interior offensive line. Dan Connolly struggled to block him. The Patriots' best offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, was beaten by Ellis as he made a tackle for a loss in the third quarter. Ellis had two sacks. He caused another. This was a case when a player and a team were breaking through; I had never seen Ellis have a game like that on a stage that big. It was his time, just as it was LaDainian Tomlinson's time and Jason Taylor's time. As tough as it is to say, it looks as if they have come together and it might possibly be time for the Jets to get their world championship.
6. Jets back to their identity. In the 45-3 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 6, the Jets had opened in a hurry-up offense with Mark Sanchez in the shotgun. They didn't make the same mistake this time. They remembered who they are and got back to it. They got the running game going and had safe throws for Sanchez. Many times, they didn't snap the ball until the play clock was under 10. Sanchez struggled in the beginning and was inaccurate, but he is the type of quarterback who gets one play and it can be a confidence builder for him. I thought the broken-play 37-yard completion to Braylon Edwards early in the second quarter -- in which Darius Butler was beaten -- was a big play for him. It wasn't just a huge gain that set up Tomlinson's touchdown, it was also the confidence builder Sanchez needed. He played better football after that.
7. Can these young Patriots take the final step? All year long, we've talked about the progression young players have made and the growth they've shown. We've seen it on a game-to-game basis. You get drafted. You learn the system. You go through training camp and earn a spot on the roster. You show you can contribute and learn the Patriot Way, having your mental toughness tested along the way, such as after a loss to the Cleveland Browns in which the young Patriots learned a great lesson. They responded after the trades of Laurence Maroney and Randy Moss. The defense got better as the year went on, learning to make plays that changed games. You had the plus-28 turnover differential on the way to putting together the best record in the regular season at 14-2. The young players have made a lot of progress, but the last step in the progression that still hasn't been made by many on the team is "Can they do it in the playoffs?" That's how you become champions. Unfortunately for them, that's the step they will be thinking about all offseason. Next season, that will be the only step I'm looking for.