If the Jets had an eye on the second-greatest upset in franchise history yesterday afternoon, the stars were aligned. The weather was terrible; the field in Gillette Stadium was drenched; their spirits were high. And after the Patriots’ first drive ended in a rare punt, that faint glimmer of hope grew brighter.
Even after Adrien Clarke’s amateurish failed attempt at blocking Patriot defensive lineman Richard Seymour resulted in a Patriot touchdown on the Jets’ second play from scrimmage, the Jets responded on the next drive when Chad Pennington, in for an injured Kellen Clemens, threw a perfect pass to Jerricho Cotchery on third and 18 from the Patriot 33, thus setting up 4th an 2 from the 17. The 24-point underdogs were in business, with three points all but assured, a first down six feet away, and Pennington back at the helm, perhaps for the last time.
And so the Jets went for it on fourth down. But when the huddle broke, it was Brad Smith, not Chad Pennington, behind center. Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and the Jets’ brain trust had decided that their best shot on fourth down lay not in Pennington’s arm but in Brad Smith’s first NFL pass attempt. And as Smith’s pass fell incomplete, Pennington’s last best chance in a Jet uniform began with a betrayal.
Having been held to account for a fragile body, a porous defense, and an errant kicking game, Pennington was to spend Sunday afternoon enduring one last humiliation, this time not at the hands of the mighty Patriots but by his own coaches and teammates, who threw away their chances in yesterday’s game with dropped passes, missed kicks, poor pass protection, fumbles and utterly inane playcalling.
Still, after the Brad Smith debacle, the Jets began the second quarter down only 7-0. And when Stephen Gostkowski extended the Patriot lead to 10-0 with a 26-yard field goal at the 12:49 mark in the second quarter, the Jet defense responded by stopping the Patriots’ next drive at the New England 40 and forcing a punt, which was promptly blocked and returned 26 yards for a touchdown by the underused David Bowens. 10-7. With less than eight minutes remaining until halftime, it was a game-—an actual competition with the best football team in 20 years.
On the ensuing drive, the Jet defense continued its best showing of the season, stalling the Patriots at midfield after Kerry Rhodes stopped Wes Welker for a two-yard loss on third and 6 with 3:54 remaining in the half. The Jets, the unlikeliest of underdogs, were to take possession on their own 20 with 2:52 remaining in the second quarter, just a field goal from a tie and a touchdown from the lead.
But then a Junior Seau sack on first down was followed by a 5-yard jaunt from Leon Washington, placing the Jets in third and 13 on their own 13 as the two-minute warning struck. Standing in the shotgun, Pennington dropped back and fired downfield for an open Justin McCareins, who dropped the pass, killing the drive. It wasn’t the first time for McCareins. Earlier in the season, he dropped not one but two touchdown passes in a game against Baltimore, costing the Jets the game.
On the very next play, as the Jets were set to punt, the Patriots’ Kelley Washington swooped in, blocking Ben Graham’s punt and setting up first and goal from the three. Two plays later, Laurence Maroney plowed across the goal line and the Patriots had a 17-7 lead.
The first Patriot drive of the third quarter ended after only three plays when Darrelle Revis’s acrobatic interception of a Tom Brady pass handed the Jet offense another golden opportunity. But on first and 10 from the Patriot 34, back came Brad Smith to run a series of option plays to little avail. So predictable and ineffective were Smith’s plays that commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were roused to note the absurdity of the tactic. After Schottenheimer had succeeded in placing the Jets into a difficult third and 7 from the Patriots’ 20, back came Chad Pennington to clean up the mess. After a delay of game lost them five more yards, Pennington faced third and 12 from the Patriot 25. Standing on the outskirts of Nugent’s field-goal range, Pennington stepped forward on the next play, completing a 10-yard pass to tight end Chris Baker, who then fumbled at the Patriot 10 yard line, throwing away yet another drive.
Miraculously, the Jets were able to stave off two more Patriot drives before they took over on their own 15 with 13:53 remaining in the fourth quarter. And once again, it was Brad Smith who led the team out on the field. After Smith’s first play resulted in a holding penalty, Pennington marched back to the huddle to negotiate a 2nd and 17 from his own 8. What followed was a 17-play drive culminating in a Nugent field goal that put the Jets back within striking distance at 17-10. A second field goal from Stephen Gostkowski then extended the Patriot lead to 20-10.
But a 49-yard kickoff return from Leon Washington was followed with a 15-yard horsecollar penalty, and the Jets had a first down from the New England 31. This time, it was all Pennington. On first down, he hit Chris Baker for 11 yards. On the next play, he connected again with Baker for another 7 yards. Then, on first down from the Patriot 20, Pennington delivered a relative bullet to a streaking Justin McCareins at the back of the Patriot end zone. Touchdown. Only it wasn’t. A Patriot challenge confirmed that McCareins had bobbled the ball as he stepped out of bounds. The Jets had to settle for a 35-yard Mike Nugent field-goal attempt, which he pulled left, marking the third time the Jets had come up empty in the New England red zone.
Make no mistake: there’s a reason Chad Pennington was sent to the bench earlier this season. He wasn’t good enough rescue the Jets from themselves, as has been the case for the majority of his career. But he’s received far too much blame for the play of a team rife with incompetents.
If Eric Mangini and Mike Tannenbaum are serious about personal responsibility, yesterday will prove to be McCareins’s last game as a Jet. And while they’re at it, they can ditch Schottenheimer, too. Were it not for his last name, he’d never have gotten this job in the first place, and through two seasons, it’s fairly apparent that he has no idea what he’s doing. And really, who needs a chip off the old block when the old block was 5-13 in the playoffs? Sadly, though, he’s a good bet to outlast Pennington, who will almost certainly be gone next year but who, if nothing else, always gave this franchise whatever he had whenever he could for as long as his body would allow.