FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For all of the trash-talking the New York Jets did in the days leading up to Sunday's divisional playoff clash with the rival New England Patriots – from cornerback Antonio Cromartie's(notes) profane assessment of Tom Brady(notes) to linebacker Bart Scott's(notes) threat to inflict violence upon Wes Welker(notes) – the most audacious statement of all was made by Rex Ryan, and it was both internal and discreet.
Ryan got his players' attention last Tuesday at the Jets' Florham Park, N.J., training facility by unveiling a bold, innovative game plan that he and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine planned to throw at the NFL's highest-scoring offense and Brady, the presumptive league MVP who runs it. Having been torched to the point of humiliation in a loss to the Pats six weeks earlier, Ryan was determined to make his team the aggressor upon its return to Gillette Stadium.
When Ryan's defensive players saw the X's and O's their coach had cooked up, there was no mistaking them for hugs and kisses.
"It was an unbelievable game plan," veteran defensive lineman Trevor Pryce(notes) said. "It was out of sight. We did some stuff I've never seen a football team do. We flooded coverages, had man schemes that looked like zone, and zone that looked like man. Our first reaction was, 'How are we gonna do this? How is this gonna work?' I mean, 14 years in the NFL, and I'd never seen anything like it. Rex came up with some Madden [expletive], like it was a video game. He said, 'Hey, let's try this.' And it worked! They couldn't figure it out."
By the time the sixth-seeded Jets' stunning, 28-21 upset of the top-seeded Pats was complete, vaulting New York into next Sunday's AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, Ryan's team had driven home several emphatic points to a football world still grappling to understand the bludgeoning of several preconceived notions.
The new rules:
• Boring is out; brash is in. That whole hyper-paranoid, "One Voice," never-say-anything-that-might-rile-your-opponent approach employed by New England coach Bill Belichick? That is so last decade. The new product – with Ryan as its, uh, foot model – features swagger, self-aggrandizing behavior and as much unchecked smack talk as a locker room can muster. Whereas Belichick went so far as to bench his top receiver, Welker, for the Pats' first offensive series because of the player's veiled shots at Ryan earlier in the week, the Jets were utterly unencumbered by such trivialities and hell-bent on defending their coach's leadership style and honor.
• Chemistry and gutty role players are out; talent and playmakers are in. For all the talk about the post-Randy Moss(notes) Patriots' success in spreading the ball around to guys like undersized halfback (and Jets reject) Danny Woodhead(notes), rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski(notes) and resuscitated receiver Deion Branch(notes), the Jets prevailed in part because their skill-position studs – most notably wideouts Santonio Holmes(notes) and Braylon Edwards(notes) and halfback LaDainian Tomlinson(notes), a former league MVP – parlayed their superior athletic ability into end-zone trips.
• Belichick's reign as football's unparalleled defensive guru is out; Ryan's coronation as his equal or (gulp) patron is in. Belichick, with three Super Bowl rings as a head coach and two others as an assistant to his credit, has confounded many a great mind over the years. But he got owned by Ryan on Sunday for 68,756 fans and all the TV-watching world to see, and it is likely to torment him throughout the offseason and beyond. When Ryan opened his postgame news conference by referencing an earlier prediction and proclaiming, "I thought it would come down to me and Belichick and thank goodness it never did because he won that battle like he always does," it was hard to avoid bursting into laughter.
A few minutes later, in an emotional and predictably loud locker room, Ryan's players made it very, very clear that they are galvanized by their second-year coach's leadership.
To be fair, we've known this for awhile. After making a splash in his rookie season by speaking candidly and cockily as the Jets made an unlikely run to the AFC championship game, Ryan turned up the volume in 2010, becoming the undisputed star of the team's summertime soiree on HBO's "Hard Knocks" and openly declaring that his team was Super Bowl-bound.
He stayed unsubtle and unrepentant throughout a choppy campaign that bottomed out with consecutive December defeats to the Patriots and Miami Dolphins and later included the surfacing of Internet foot-fetish videos that appeared to feature Ryan and his wife, Michelle. When Welker, in the wake of comments by Ryan mildly critical of Brady – and Cromartie's expletive-laced depiction of the quarterback – made 11 references to feet in his news conference last Thursday, both Belichick and the Jets' players believed he had crossed the line.
Belichick, according to CBS, benched Welker because the receiver had violated the coach's edict to avoid inflammatory statements. Meanwhile, Scott told Newsday, "Be very careful what you say about our coach. His days in a uniform will be numbered. Put it like that."
Why so serious? Scott explained after Sunday's game: "They made it personal 'cause they attacked my coach. I'll go to war for a man who's willing to put himself on the front line and fight with his troops, instead of dictating from a tower and sending 'em into battle. Because the reason people have his back is he's protecting us. He was saying [last week] it was his fault that we lost last time. We know we didn't play our best, that they came out and had more of a sense of urgency than us, and took it to us. We knew we played a huge part in that defeat. Yet he puts himself out there. How can you not play hard for a man like that?"
Added Pryce: "He's one of us. First of all, he has your back before you have his. And he's been through so much this year. It's been hard watching someone you care about go through all he's gone through this season. The bottom line is he lays it all out there for you, and you'll do whatever you can for a coach like that."
Before Sunday's game, Ryan told his players that they were a better team than the Patriots – whom they had defeated in the second week of the season – and that they were superior as individuals, too. As the game played out, it was hard to argue either point.
After falling behind 3-0, second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez(notes) (16-of-25, 194 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) rediscovered the deft touch he'd displayed in that September triumph over New England at the New Meadowlands Stadium and utilized the talented targets at his disposal.
Former Pro Bowl wideout Braylon Edwards, acquired in a 2009 trade with the Cleveland Browns, got free for a 37-yard completion that set up Sanchez's seven-yard scoring pass to Tomlinson with 10:24 remaining in the second quarter. Thirty-three seconds before halftime – and four plays after a ruinous fake-punt attempt that gave New York the ball at the Pats' 37-yard line – Edwards dragged defensive backs Brandon Meriweather(notes) and Devin McCourty(notes) into the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown catch that give the Jets a 14-3 lead.
When the Pats closed to 14-11 just before the end of the third quarter, No. 3 wideout Jericho Cotchery (five catches, 96 yards) got the final quarter off to an emphatic start, turning upfield after catching a Sanchez pass over the middle and racing ahead for a 58-yard gain. Three plays later, on third-and-goal from the 4, Holmes – acquired in an offseason trade with the Steelers – caught a gorgeous fade from Sanchez in the left corner of the end zone, beating cornerback Kyle Arrington(notes) and somehow getting his foot and knee onto the turf just inches inside the white lines.
It was eerily similar to the game-winning catch against the Arizona Cardinals two seasons ago that earned Holmes Super Bowl XLIII MVP honors, and it was yet another reminder that when a season is on the line, pedigree often trumps locker-room tranquility and resourcefulness. As Ryan said later: "You know, we've got some weapons now."
Added veteran fullback Tony Richardson(notes): "You can't knock what [the Patriots have] been able to do. They've been able to do a lot without having those superstar players, other than Brady. But yeah, I think you do have to have playmakers. When you have Braylon, Santonio, Jericho, two great backs, a tight end [Dustin Keller(notes)] – you name it, we've got it."
The Jets' collective edge in big-game experience didn't hurt, either. "I sensed a group that had never really been in that situation," said Tomlinson, who signed with the Jets last spring after being released by the Chargers. "I sensed a group that for so long throughout the year was used to being up, to scoring a bunch of points, to getting turnovers, to having their way. When things get tight, you see what they're made of. That's what was so shocking."
Nothing, however, was more shocking than the sight of Brady looking utterly discombobulated in the pocket. Having ended the regular season by throwing an NFL-record 335 passes without an interception (he was picked off only four times on the season, against 36 TD tosses) and directing an offense that averaged a league-high 32.4 points a game, Brady entered Sunday's game looking like a man poised to match Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw by winning a fourth Super Bowl ring.
Instead, he continued a recent run of postseason struggles, beginning with an ill-advised screen pass to BenJarvus Green-Ellis(notes) on New England's opening drive that ended up in the hands of Jets linebacker David Harris(notes). Following a 58-yard return, Harris was run down at the Pats' 12 by veteran tight end Alge Crumpler(notes), and Nick Folk(notes) shanked a 30-yard field goal, sending the Gillette fans into a euphoric fit of taunting.
Yet while the Jets had their share of missed opportunities, including a pair of Patriots fumbles in their own territory that New York failed to recover, their ability to rattle Brady grew more pronounced as the game continued. The Jets had five sacks – two by defensive end Shaun Ellis(notes) – and star cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes), Cromartie and their fellow defensive backs and linebackers were so good in coverage that Brady struggled to find open receivers and repeatedly held the ball for uncomfortably long stretches.
The Jets flooded Brady's passing lanes with defenders, disguised their schemes masterfully and mixed things up with regularity. There were zone packages disguised as man-to-man defenses, and vice-versa, with no discernible pattern. According to Scott, when the Patriots motioned players to try to get a sense of what coverages the Jets were playing, "we never moved – and they still had no idea what we were doing."
Brady also lacked an obvious go-to target, something he once had in Moss, whom the Pats surprisingly traded to the Minnesota Vikings in October. Moss' departure undoubtedly was a positive development for the Pats, who reacquired Branch from the Seahawks and thrived by divvying up the opportunities to a variety of less-heralded targets. However, Sunday called for a game-breaking receiver with star quality, and for Brady, there seemed to be a direct path from No Moss to No mas.
"Our coaches found a way to make it as complicated as possible, and Tom Brady literally had no answer," Pryce said. "When he threw the interception to David, it was like, 'Uhhh, we got him.' I could see some of the horror in his eyes. When nobody was open, he's not a running quarterback, and he knew he was gonna get hit. And believe me, he got hit.
"He was terrified. He was absolutely frazzled. Anytime you see him running around like a chicken with his head cut off, it's shocking, 'cause you don't see that very often. He was shook."
Most stunning of all was the sight of Brady, trailing 21-11 after Holmes' touchdown catch with 13 minutes left, direct a 14-play, 53-yard drive so deliberate, it evoked unpleasant memories of Donovan McNabb's(notes) infamous attempt to bring the Philadelphia Eagles back from a 10-point deficit to the Pats late in Super Bowl XXXIX. Seven minutes, 45 seconds later, when Branch dropped a fourth-and-13 pass, the Patriots were in deep trouble.
Brady, one of the best ever to play the position, wouldn't go down quietly – New England got the ball back and closed to within a touchdown on Shayne Graham's(notes) 35-yard field goal with 1:57 to go. Graham's promising onside kick, in a sight that had to nauseate Pats fans like no other, squirted past the front line of the Jets and was scooped up by Cromartie, who raced 23 yards to set up a first-and-10 at the New England 20. Two plays later, halfback Shonn Greene(notes) (17 carries, 76 yards) broke free around right end and completed a 16-yard scoring run, taunting his fallen foes in the end zone by feigning sleep while using the football as a pillow.
Ryan, ostensibly peeved that the second-year runner hadn't gone down before the goal line, which would have allowed the Jets to kill the clock with kneel-downs, rumbled down the sideline to join in the celebration.
"When I was running down there, I was yelling to get down," Ryan said. "But I really wasn't."
Of course he wasn't. As we learned on Sunday – and, perhaps, as Ryan and his players knew even before the game started – conventional wisdom no longer applies. It's Rex's world, in all its unrefined splendor, and the volume is only getting louder.
Before the game, during the game, after the game, his was the mouth that roared.
"Same old Jets going to the AFC championship game two years in a row," Ryan declared, his voice drenched in I-told-you-so sarcasm. Then, in an instant, he turned dead serious: "Only difference is, we plan on winning this one."
THE HIGH FIVE …
• The pool of Aaron Rodgers(notes) skeptics is rapidly evaporating, and if the quarterback's effort in the Packers' first-round victory over the Eagles didn't convince the remaining skeptics of his emergence as a bona-fide star, his phenomenal performance in Saturday's night's 48-21 thrashing of the top-seeded Falcons in Atlanta likely did the trick. Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns, ran for another score while displaying impressive mobility in and out of the pocket and kept his team's punter on the bench for the entire game, all while helping the Pack to its highest-ever playoff point total. Other than that, he was pretty ordinary. Put it this way: Two more games at anything close to that level, and we can start pondering which Green Bay street will be renamed Aaron Rodgers Pass.
• If Rodgers' omission from the initial wave of Pro Bowl selections wasn't the NFL's most egregious, that distinction belonged to teammate Tramon Williams(notes), a fourth-year cornerback who went undrafted out of Louisiana Tech but now is second only to Revis (and perhaps tied with free-agent-to-be Nnamdi Asomugha(notes)) among his peers. And as red-hot Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers would likely attest, when 2009 NFL defensive player of the year Charles Woodson(notes) becomes your No. 2 corner, you have a pretty good life. "The young fella is playing lights out," Woodson wrote (via text) Saturday night, after Williams intercepted a Matt Ryan(notes) pass in the end zone to keep the game tied at 14, then jumped on a quick Ryan sideline throw to star wideout Roddy White(notes) and cruised in with a 70-yard scoring return that gave Green Bay a 28-14 lead on the final play of the first half. Dagger.
• When we look back on 2010, the words career resurrection likely won't be restricted to Michael Vick(notes). In Pittsburgh, Ben Roethlisberger's(notes) return to Most Favored Quarterback status was cemented by his gutsy, 58-yard pass to wideout Antonio Brown(notes) on third-and-19 – which the rookie trapped against his helmet while making the catch – that set up the Steelers' winning touchdown in a 31-24 comeback triumph over the rival Ravens on Saturday afternoon. With the Patriots out of the way, Roethlisberger has a pretty feasible path to a third Super Bowl ring at the age of 28. How happy is president Art Rooney II that he didn't actually trade Big Ben last spring in the wake of the sexual-assault allegations that prompted a four-game NFL suspension to start the season?
• As for the other team that will be hosting a conference championship game next week, the Chicago Bears continued a remarkable 2010 turnaround with a 35-24 beatdown of the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field on Sunday. I'll be weighing in on coach Lovie Smith, quarterback Jay Cutler(notes), middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) and others responsible for Chicago's success in the days ahead, but right now I'll simply note that the 182nd meeting between the Bears and the Packers has the word epic written all over it, and I look forward to attending the biggest game I'll have experienced in person in the Windy City since I sat courtside at the United Center with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, courtesy of book subject Dennis Rodman, for Game 1 of the '96 NBA Finals during the Bulls' heyday . Hey, it was a tough job, but someone had to do it.
• While spending draft day with Mark Sanchez 21 months ago, I observed his closely knit family and gained an understanding of the quarterback's desire to have his parents and siblings share in his athletic success. So I was especially moved by the sight of the Jets quarterback and his father, Nick, walking back out onto the Gillette Stadium field and sharing a moment together more than an hour after Sunday's game (before other family members joined them in a celebratory huddle that apparently is a long-standing Sanchez ritual). Clad in a black overcoat, his cloudy breath whipping through the frigid New England night, Mark burrowed his head in his father's shoulder like a fifth-grader who'd just thrown his first game-winning touchdown pass in flag football. I'm fairly sure it won't be the last time I see the two of them in that position.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I was getting ready to rip Belichick for the failed fake-punt attempt that essentially handed the Jets their second touchdown shortly before halftime – it was a strategic miscalculation with consequences that seemed to rival his fourth-down fiasco against the Colts in ’09 – but then I read this NESN.com report in which punter Zoltan Mesko(notes) revealed that second-year safety (and up-back) Patrick Chung(notes) made the executive decision to try to take advantage of what he believed was a favorable blocking alignment. So let me start by blasting Chung before I circle back to Belichick.
First of all, on fourth-and-4 from your own 38 in a four-point game with 1:14 remaining in the first half, I believe the risk-reward ratio tilts very strongly in favor of punting the ball. That said, if you’re going to have the gall to call a fake without having solicited your three-time-Super-Bowl-winning coach’s input, the one thing you absolutely cannot do is fumble the direct snap – which, of course, is precisely what Chung did. After picking up the ball he’d failed to catch, Chung was pummeled by Jets safety Eric Smith(notes) after a one-yard gain. Had Chung fielded the ball cleanly, I’m not sure he’d have gotten the first down, anyway. As for Belichick, does one of football’s foremost control freaks really have a system that grants such leeway to a young player like Chung? At the very least, shouldn’t Chung have an understanding that, while he possesses the ostensible power to call a fake in any situation, he needs to be very, very aware of the specific set of circumstances before subjecting his team to such a gamble? And part of me wonders whether Mesko’s assessment of the situation is an accurate reflection of the way it went down – and since Belichick wouldn’t get into specifics, I can’t tell you for sure what the coach or player was thinking. I can, however, give you Pryce’s take from the Jets’ sideline: “That’s what I think lost the game for them. It was because things weren’t working for them on offense. They knew they had to do something. And sometimes you’re so smart that you outsmart yourself.”
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That, in my haste to get from the press box to the locker room in the latter stages of Sunday’s game, I raced into the elevator while still wearing my Bushnell Xtra-Wide binoculars around my neck – meaning I had the privilege of walking around like a dork for the next hour, having them embedded into my chest by unwitting reporters in my vicinity while crowding around various players and appearing to scores of football players and journalists like a guy covering his first divisional round game, rather than his 22nd. It was definitely my most embarrassing moment in an NFL stadium since this priceless sequence in December 2008.
2. The report Sunday from ESPN’s Adam Schefter that, prior to getting rid of coach Tom Cable, Raiders owner Al Davis withheld a total of $120,000 from Cable’s paychecks during the 2010 season for team-imposed fines (in $20,000 chunks). If you were reading this about any other franchise, these words would be stunning. The Raiders? Well, given the strange way in which Davis presides over his dysfunctional, strife-filled kingdom, this is barely shrug-worthy. Cable’s supposed offense hasn’t been revealed, but he clearly embarrassed the franchise in 2009 with his “accidental bumping” that left former defensive assistant Randy Hanson with a broken jaw and his subsequent admission (following an ESPN report) that he once struck his ex-wife. Hanson’s ongoing civil suit against Cable and the franchise threatens to cause further embarrassment. Also, Cable defied Davis’ wishes by benching JaMarcus Russell(notes) in '09 and by starting Bruce Gradkowski(notes) over Jason Campbell(notes) in 2010. Did Davis dock his pay for any of those reasons, or for some as yet unrevealed transgression? Who knows? Cable also wasn’t a very good coach, though his players did play hard for him during this 8-8 season. Whatever – it doesn’t really matter, because very little makes sense in Raiderland. And I have a sneaking suspicion that this is money Cable can forget about ever seeing, given that the grievances that (according to Schefter) Cable filed during the season will be resolved by the league office, which recently sided with Davis against Cable’s predecessor, Lane Kiffin, whom the owner fired “for cause” early in the ’08 campaign.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
– Text Saturday night from Woodson.
“Holy crap. Reminded me of the ’04 $c game. Never seen a QB play like that.”
Text early Sunday morning from Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz, who showed up at the Georgia Dome to watch his fellow Cal alum Rodgers shine.
“Almost like a dream, I’ve always come up big in those situations, nuthin I can do now, but I’m still in disbelief”
– Text Sunday afternoon from Ravens wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh(notes), still stunned by the fourth-down pass he dropped the previous night that ended Baltimore’s season.