FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Bryan Thomas has played in more of these border wars than anybody on the New York Jets, so he understands exactly what was lost Sunday at Gillette Stadium. They missed a rare opportunity, one that will haunt them for weeks, maybe months.
"You know what this feels like? I'll be honest with you," the old linebacker said after the 29-26 overtime loss to the New England Patriots. "Did you ever get punched in the stomach, when you weren't tensed up for it? You know, like somebody sucker-punched you? That's how this feels."
The Jets got sucker-punched, all right. They played 58½ minutes of inspired football, coming within a play or two of completing one of the season's biggest upsets. They tried the old shoelaces trick on the neighborhood bully -- Look, your shoelaces are untied -- but the Jets forgot to deliver the knockout punch when the Patriots looked down.
They let up. When they needed a play to finish the job, the Jets couldn't make it. They played well, but not well enough to win. And the coaches have to take a hit here, too, because there was curiously conservative play calling in the final two minutes of regulation.
"We let them off the hook," safety LaRon Landry said. "It's nothing they did special. We created that madness. We didn't finish it."
The Jets (3-4) have lost a lot of games to the Patriots, but what made this different was the state of the Patriots (4-3). They looked like an ordinary team; their usual aura was gone. This was the Jets' chance to make a statement and take sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
And wouldn't that have been something, considering they were left for dead two weeks ago?
"Yeah, we missed a golden opportunity," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "Woulda, shoulda, coulda. We just didn't get it done."
Rex Ryan was ticked off. He was upset with the officiating, but he also knew the cost of what was squandered.
"It stinks being on this end of it," he said, jaw clenched.
The Jets actually outgained the top-ranked offense in the NFL, 403 yards to 381, with quarterback Mark Sanchez carrying his teammates as they scored 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to take a 26-23 lead on Nick Folk's 43-yard field goal with 1:37 left in regulation.
The victory was theirs. All they needed was a play. As Pace said, "We just didn't make that play."
Cornerback Antonio Cromartie dropped a would-be interception in the fourth quarter. Rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill dropped a third-down pass at the Patriots' 14 with 2:11 remaining in the fourth. That was the killer. If he makes that catch, there's a good chance the Jets are up 27-23, not tied at 23 after a field goal.
"I was just about ready to look over to the sidelines for the next play and the ball came out," Sanchez of Hill's drop, a classic case of a young player taking his eyes off the ball.
"That would've been it right there," Pace said.
The Jets still had a chance. They made their own luck on the ensuing kickoff, recovering a fumble by Devin McCourty, the same guy who made it 7-7 with a 104-yard kickoff return way back in the first quarter.
Ball at the Patriots' 18, with 2:01 to play. This is where they got too conservative, as offensive coordinator Tony Sparano called running plays on first and second down.
Sanchez was hot, shredding the Patriots' terrible secondary. He threw 41 times, saying afterward, "It felt good to sling it around like that." They should've let him sling it one more time.
They should've thrown on first down, because the run didn't force the Patriots to burn a timeout; the 2-minute warning stopped the clock for them. The Patriots used their first timeout after the second-down run and they burned another when Sanchez took a sack on a bootleg pass that went awry.
With three bad plays and a go-ahead field goal, the Jets used only 24 seconds on the clock. Where was the killer instinct? You don't give Tom Brady that much time -- 1:32 when he got the ball -- needing only a field goal.
"On third down, we thought we could make a play, but unfortunately they ended up making a good play," Ryan said -- not a terribly strong defense of the play calling.
The defense was terrific for 58½ minutes, so there was confidence as Brady returned to the field. Well, some confidence.
"I'm thinking, 'We got this,' " Pace said. "But I'm thinking, 'I've seen this same story before.' "
The coaches didn't do them any favors with play calling that, for a Ryan-coached defense, was shockingly passive. The Jets used three-man rushes, going to zone coverage after employing man-to-man most of the game. Ryan said he was concerned about the Patriots popping a screen pass against man coverage.
It was child's play for Brady, who completed four passes to set up Stephen Gostkowski's game-tying field goal. The Patriots' game-winning drive in overtime was more of the same, Brady dinking and dunking against the Jets' soft zones. Ryan refused to call it a prevent defense.
But facts are facts: Brady was 9-of-10 for 101 yards when the Jets sent just three pass rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Five of those attempts came on the last two scoring drives, and he completed all of them. When the Jets sent four or more rushers on the final two drives, he was just 4-of-8 for 32 yards.
In the end, the Jets did a lot of good things, but they gave away nine points with a safety and a kickoff-return touchdown -- and you can't give away points, not even to a faux Patriots team.
"We were right there," Ryan said.
And then they weren't.