FOXBORO MA - DECEMBER 06: James Sanders #36 of the New England Patriots celebrates after he intercepted a pass against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 6 2010 in Foxboro Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Patriots fans have every reason to be happy today. They should enjoy New England's absolute slaughter of the Jets in Gillette Stadium on Monday night. Enjoy it all the way through Saturday because on Sunday they have another big game against the 9-3 Bears in Chicago. In fact, all the games are big from here on. The Patriots now hold a one-game lead on the Jets in the AFC East, but they can't afford to take their foot off the pedal. If the Jets win out, and the Patriots lose at Buffalo in Week 16 or at home against Miami in Week 17, the Jets would win the division and claim the top seed in the conference. That partially explains why the Patriots piled on the points and tried their hardest to keep the Jets out of the end zone. They need the Jets demoralized and vulnerable. If New York loses again, the division is likely secured, along with home field advantage for at least one game. Yes, the Ravens embarrassed the Patriots in New England during the playoffs last year, but Gillette remains one of the most difficult stadiums for visitors to earn victories. After watching Tom Brady's fire, accuracy and clinical decision-making these last few games you can bet the rest of the AFC is dreading facing him in the playoffs, especially with a home crowd cheering on.
The Patriots finally showed the rest of the NFL how they should have treated the Jets. Rex Ryan's team is an emotional group that welcomes the pressure, and loves to ride their momentum. The Patriots came out swinging, and the minute the Jets stumbled they put their foot on their throats and never let them back up. Bill Belichick understands that when you give these Jets an opening they take it and run.
By making this score as lopsided as possible, Bill sent a message to Ryan that he lets what happens on the football field speak for itself. I'm not sure the message was received. In his postgame press conference, Rex acknowledged that the Jets were "out-coached and out-played," but claimed that this drubbing was revenge for the Jets 28-14 win at the Meadowlands in Week 2: "I mean, let's face it, we kicked their butt at our place. So you know, they are trying to come back." I don't think you can really compare a two-touchdown win where the Jets trailed at halftime to a massacre by six-touchdowns. However I would expect nothing less from Ryan, who is already demanding a rematch: "I'll be ready to play ‘em. I'll play them right now if they'll go out and do it again." I understand that he has to say these things to maintain his image and team morale, but he had 11 days to prepare for this game. Why weren’t they ready then?
Where has this Mark Sanchez been all season? The one who last year crumbled frequently under pressure and generously gave the ball away. Sanchez has grown by leaps and bounds in 2010, leading numerous fourth-quarter comebacks and taking on more of a leadership role. In this game he threw three interceptions and was visibly frustrated. The first interception to Brandon Spikes came on a pass to Braylon Edwards where he was blanketed by three Patriot defenders in the end zone, with the fourth, Spikes, playing zone coverage underneath. Spikes leapt and snared the ball, sapping any momentum the Jets had built to start the second half. The interception to Devin McCourty (Devin's fourth pick in three games) was partly a necessity of having to take a shot deep due to being so far behind. McCourty made a fantastic play, keeping tight to Edwards as they sprinted downfield, turning back to the ball just in time and securing the catch despite Edwards' attempts to rip it out. Sanchez had no excuse however on the third interception which he threw directly to James Sanders as though the safety was invisible.
I highly doubt this performance will cause a tailspin that brings Sanchez back to mid-2009 season levels, but it has to be a major dent to the ego. Perhaps now we will see less of those obnoxious 'banking airplane' celebrations as a result.
I was impressed with the Jets sportsmanship in this game. Many divisional matchups in the last few weeks have featured hot tempers, fights, unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and ejections. Once the game was out of hand the Jets could have tried to injure the Patriots or get under their skin and extract a modicrum of revenge. Instead they remained professionals and took their beating. They know this season is far from over, and they may have to face the Patriots again. Fortunately for New England, if Tom Brady and company hold their lead through the last four games, any rematch will have to take place at Gillette Stadium where the Jets are now 3-7, and Mark Sanchez is 0-2 with seven interceptions.
This Patriot defense continues to amaze me. They have 23 takeaways this season, including eight interceptions in the last three games. They are the youngest defense in the league, and statistically one of the worst, but they get the job done. The secondary as a unit has greatly improved its play since the beginning of the year. They were able to keep the Jets receivers from hurting them on deep passes (their longest pass play was 24 yards), a task that many higher-ranked defenses have not been able to accomplish this season.
Jermaine Cunningham had another nice game, making five solo tackles including a stop for a loss on Shonn Greene. He has become the Patriots best outside linebacker against the run. He came very close to sacking Sanchez late in the game but the quarterback was able to wriggle away. Cunningham has great length, and seems to frequently get his hands on passers despite only registering one sack this season. It is encouraging that he puts himself in that position, but as he develops he needs to find a way to finish the job.
James Sanders is playing the best I have ever seen him play, coming through in the clutch and doing his job efficiently without a lot of fanfare. He is a really smart player. There was a moment last night after an incompletion where the receiver's momentum was carrying him straight into Sanders. Some players (Rodney Harrison for example) would have taken advantage of the gray area immediately following the whistle, stood firm and let the opponent slam off their shoulder. James deftly stepped out of the way. There was no reason to risk a late hit or unnecessary roughness penalty there. He knew that play was already a positive one for the Patriots, and there was nothing to be gained by an extra hit which could further motivate the Jets. Don't get me wrong, I was a huge fan of Harrison's style, and there are situations where such a play would have been beneficial, but this was not it. Sanders may not lay players out like Brandon Meriweather, but when he tackles he makes sure to wrap up and end the play. The two styles compliment each other well, and Sanders has undoubtedly earned his increased playing time.
Go ahead Patriots fans and revel in this important victory. Appreciate the opportunity it gives New England to claim the top playoff seed in the AFC. There is no question this game will be remembered long after the season by both teams, but it will not shut Rex Ryan up or suddenly turn Bill Belichick into a goofball. These coaches know their strengths, and know their goals for the season have not yet been accomplished. For the rest of the NFL who tuned in prepared to be entertained by two of the best teams in the league, it will mark one of the most disappointing Monday night games in a long time. The Patriots made a statement, and Jets fans will walk with a bit less swagger this week, but there is plenty more road to cover. Aside from some pride, nobody has won or lost anything yet.