FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are two things we've come to expect when the New England Patriots stride onto the football field: a superb game plan and a cerebral quarterback who maximizes his weapons.
Yet something went terribly awry in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs Sunday afternoon. The superb game plan was submitted by the blustery New York Jets coach, Rex Ryan, who backed his bravado with a brilliant package of defensive schemes that left both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady flummoxed.
Ryan declared earlier in the week this game was all about him and the "almost" HC of the NYJ. The Patriots brethren snickered in unison at the bombastic New York coach. It was laughable to consider he was on the same level as their resident genius, Bill Belichick.
Who's laughing now? Ryan and his oft-maligned quarterback, Mark Sanchez, advance to the AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the shell-shocked Patriots are left to ponder how a superlative regular season was so swiftly reduced to rubble on their home field. Go ahead and predict a Steelers romp next week if you like, but keep in mind that Gang Green has now dispatched of Peyton Manning and the Colts, and Brady and the Patriots in consecutive weeks -- winning both games on the road.
The air of disbelief was palpable in the somber New England locker room. When pressed for details on how the Patriots were thoroughly outplayed by the Jets, the answer was surprising.
"You work all week on one thing and then you get something different," a stone-faced Wes Welker said. Asked to elaborate, Welker said the Patriots planned for man coverage, only to be stifled by a mix of zone defenses.
"We tried to make adjustments, but we never really could get in a rhythm," he said.
The redoubtable Welker amused us earlier in the week with a clever tongue-in-cheek interview session with veiled references to Ryan's celebrated foot fetish.
One man failed to see the humor in it -- Belichick. He benched his receiver for the first offensive series. Welker, whose remarkable recovery from major knee surgery in less than a year was a heartwarming subplot to the season, would not comment on his punishment. "You have to ask the coach," he said.
Belichick long ago cemented his reputation as one of the best in the game with innovative strategies and daring gambles. That mentality derailed his football team late in the second quarter when the Patriots ran a fake punt on fourth-and-3 from their 39-yard line.
The play was botched almost immediately as Patrick Chung mishandled the snap. The Jets got the ball back at New England's 37-yard line, and three plays later punched it in the end zone, enabling them to skip into the locker room with a 14-3 halftime lead.
It was the kind of demoralizing turnaround that New England usually relies on to crush opponents.
Incredibly, there was some confusion on whether Belichick actually made the call for the fake punt. Is it possible one of the biggest blunders in Patriots postseason history was the decision of second-year player Chung? Belichick was vague in his postgame remarks, acknowledging the call was "a bad mistake." Yet, when asked directly if he signed off on it, he responded, "I've said all I'm going to say about that."
All we can say with certainty is it was a colossal blunder for the home team.
Normally, the Patriots have relied on Brady to fix all that ails them, but with the Jets' coverage completely blanketing Welker and Deion Branch (five catches for 59 yards, two of them after the game was out of reach), Brady's choices were limited. New England's (and the league's) MVP was harried all afternoon by the Jets' relentless pressure. He was sacked five times, and we're not talking about the "Oh-they're-coming-I-better-go-down" variety. Brady was manhandled by the vicious, taste-the-turf kind of beatdowns that he has escaped most of the season.
"I think we got him frustrated," cornerback Antonio Cromartie said. "We got him moving outside the pocket. We felt once he moved outside the pocket he wasn't as accurate as a passer."
Belichick and Brady, once considered the untouchable, unbeatable one-two punch, are now officially mired in a championship drought. Since their last Super Bowl victory in 2004, the Patriots are 2-5 in the postseason against teams they were playing for a second time. The last three, in succession, are the Jets, the Ravens and the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, all losses.
Since their last Super Bowl win, the Patriots are 4-5 in the postseason. Brady has thrown 13 interceptions in that span, including one Sunday when he badly overthrew BenJarvus Green-Ellis on a screen pass.
It will be a long, painful offseason for Brady, who hammered home the need to be precise, error-free and focused to his young team. He spent several minutes commiserating with his friend Welker as the two departed from the stadium, the shock on their faces still evident.
"It's like you're on the treadmill running 10 miles an hour and then someone just hits the stop button," Brady said.
"The goal we set around here was a lot bigger than what just happened," Branch said.
Tight end Alge Crumpler, more than any other player, totally bought into Belichick and the Patriot Way in his first season with New England. Unlike some of the other veterans in the New England locker room, he has never won a title. The realization that that goal won't be reached left him observing quietly, "We didn't make plays early. If we get out ahead on those guys, then it's not even close."
Crumpler was not in the mood to reflect on his experience in New England, a season that until Sunday held so much promise.
"I don't care about that," he answered. "I care about what happened the last three hours, and I've got to deal with it."
He's not alone.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.