In recent weeks, as Brett Favre’s infamous penchant for interceptions became even more pronounced, speculation grew in contrarian circles that the Jets may have made a mistake in acquiring him, that the Dolphins had ultimately been the grand-prize winners in the Brett Favre sweepstakes, and that the Jets would have been better served had they held fast to the steady but unspectacular hand of Chad Pennington rather than leave their fortunes prone to the often-schizophrenic whims of a 39-year-old quarterback who, they said, had selfishly come back to play out the string for no other reason than to shame his former team for not bending to his every want.
That speculation was wrong.
And if that much were not apparent before last night’s stunning, season-altering 34-31 overtime win against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, then it ought to have been apparent afterward. Favre played his best, most complete game of the season, helping stake the Jets to a 24-6 lead in the first half and then rallying the team twice thereafter, once late in the fourth quarter to cap a seven-minute drive with a go-ahead touchdown and a 31-24 lead and then, most spectacularly, in overtime to win the game on the strength of Jay Feely’s 32-yard field goal.
And that’s why you get Brett Favre. You get Brett Favre because he never gives up on a game, because he never gives up on his teammates, and most importantly, because he never lets his teammates give up on themselves. He simply will not allow it. He is, above all else, a winner: a rare and worthy distinction in itself but absolutely imperative for a team whose history, fraught with bizarre, increasingly inventive failure, presides like a green-speckled albatross atop every stadium in which the Jets play.
By all appearances, Favre is not troubled in the least by what’s happened here and has little interest in having it recounted to him. So far as he’s concerned, the Bates Motel is actually a charming fixer-upper with untapped potential for expansion, brand enhancement, and future revenue growth. Favre is not scared of the Jets, and it shows. Indeed, if New York fans and national media outlets have seemed more troubled by Favre’s interceptions than Favre, himself, it’s because they are: Favre is not now–and never has been–particularly concerned with interceptions. They roll off his conscience like water off a duck’s back. He is unfazed by mistakes because he regards himself as an aggressor, as the one to be feared, not as a victim waiting to be devoured. Whereas the Jets have spent the better part of the last 40 years trying not to lose, Favre has spent his career trying to win. And their divergent results tell the tale.
Favre rescued the Jets from the Patriots, from themselves, and even from head coach Eric Mangini. But as is so often the case in sports, it is the destination, not the journey, that wins the greatest notice. And so the many trials and tribulations, some of which very nearly cost the Jets this landmark win, shall soon be forgotten, cast aside and forever obscured by the fact of victory. It is, after all, the prevailing tendency among players and fans alike to regard both wins and losses as absolute and unqualified, to find neither mitigation in defeat nor caveat in victory.
But this rule is more rightly honored in the breach. The unvarnished truth, swept away by Brett Favre and the right leg of Jay Feely, is that the Jets nearly lost this game through a series of glaring tactical errors, almost all of which were the product of the same fear-based conservatism that has marked this franchise for decades.
It began late in the first half. After Brett Favre hooked up with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery on a 15-yard touchdown strike to push the Jets out to a 24-6 with 5:06 remaining in the second quarter, the defense quickly stopped the Patriots at their own 23 and forced a punt. The Jets took over on their own 30 with 2:33 remaining and two timeouts left. In front of them was a visibly tired, emotionally reeling Patriots defense. Rather than continue along the same course that saw his team amass an almost-surreal lead, Eric Mangini elected to sit on the football, allowing the clock to run down to the two-minute warning after Thomas Jones carried for one yard on first down. And after Favre missed Jerricho Cotchery on the next play, the Jets were flagged for a delay-of-game penalty, whose effect was to convert a makeable third and nine opportunity to a nearly impossible third and 14.
Predictably, the Jets ran the ball on third and long, failing to pick up the first down. Even more predictably, the Patriots took the ensuing possession and scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 26-13 with 20 seconds remaining in the half. The Jets had lost both their momentum and their mental edge, neither of which they would recapture until the very second that Feely’s kick sailed through the uprights in overtime.
Following a halftime that once again saw Mangini outcoached by the Machiavellian schemes of Bill Belichick, the Jets were on their heels. And after the Patriots scored a touchdown and two-point conversion in the waning seconds of the third quarter to cut the lead to 24-21, things seemed to be devolving into the same kind of debacle on which the Jets have been the league’s leading authority. But when Stephen Gostkowski connected on a 48-yard field goal with 10:22 left in the fourth quarter, things began to look especially dire.
To his everlasting credit, Favre would answer Gostkowski by leading the Jets on a methodical 14-play. 67-yard drive that would be capped by a one-yard Thomas Jones touchdown run and a 31-24 lead with 3:14 remaining in the game. The defense then forced three and out, and the Jets took over once again with just 2:33 remaining and victory near at hand. After Thomas Jones collected eight yards on two carries, the Jets faced a third down and two as the two-minute warning struck. The Patriots were out of timeouts. If the Jets were to secure a first down, the game would be over. But instead of entrusting the matter to Favre on a night when no Patriot defender had gotten even close to any of his passes, the Jets ran the ball, the apparent logic being that an incomplete pass would stop the clock, whereas even a failed run would cost the Patriots an additional 45 seconds.
Thomas Jones was stopped cold on third and two, and the Jets punted to the Patriots, who took over on their own 38 with 1:04 remaining and no timeouts left. It was then and there that Mangini nearly drove a stake through the Jets. Instead, of forcing Cassel to make difficult throws in a pressure situation, Mangini fell back into a prevent defense that could have been just as easily accomplished had the team remained in the sidelines. They allowed Cassel to go 5-5 for 67 yards, the last 14 of which were picked up on a touchdown pass to Randy Moss, who beat newly reacquired cornerback Ty Law along the sideline and sent the game to overtime.
Luckily, the Jets won the midfield toss. And luckily, they had Brett Favre, who, after being sacked on the first play of overtime and missing a pass to running back Leon Washington on second down, stepped up to deliver the ball that may very well have saved the Jets’ season. On third and 15 from his own 20, Favre dropped back and fired a bullet along the right sideline for tight end Dustin Keller, who made the catch and then dived across the first-down marker. A series of short runs and passes followed, and ten plays later, Feely stroked a 32-yard field goal that sneaked through the left upright and left the Jets winners.
Now at 7-3, the Jets are in prime position to win the AFC East and secure the second seed in the conference playoff alignment. In fact, they still have an outside chance to capture the No. 1 seed and, by extension, homefield advantage throughout the duration of the playoffs. In this respect, their win at Foxborough will begin to pay dividends almost immediately, as the Jets prepare to take on the conference-leading Tennessee Titans next week in Nashville. With their week 11 game already in the books, the Jets will now likely enjoy several days off in what will amount to a sort of mini-bye.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff will now have three extra days in which to study, scrutinize, and otherwise assess the Titans’ tendencies over their impressive, league-leading 9-0 start. The truth is that the Jets would have been an ideal candidate to hand the Titans their first loss anyway. In the age of parity, wherein individual matchups and smart gameplans often exert more influence over a particular outcome than broad talent disparities, the Jets appear to have an enviable angle on the Titans, who run the ball exceedingly well but have struggled to develop anything even remotely approximating a consistent passing attack with quarterback Kerry Collins.
The Jets, of course, have assembled a stalwart run defense but continue to struggle mightily to defend against the pass, as demonstrated conclusively and embarrassingly by last night’s 400-yard performance from Patriots starter, Matt Cassel. If the Jets can slow the Titans’ running game and force Collins into third-down passing situations, they would stand a very good chance to win the game and thereby shrink the Titans’ conference lead to two games or, should the Titans precede their meeting with the Jets losing this week to division rival Jacksonville, a single game with five left to play.