Amazingly, it has been a relatively quiet week in Patriots Nation - no blockbuster signings or clandestine trade rumors - so I better make a dent in the countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2016 before Belichick goes off on another tear.
The list so far:
20. The New England Patriots trade all-star linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a bag of peanuts
19. LeGarrette Blount runs through the entire Seahawks line on his way to the end zone.
At Number 18, we turn inwards into a divisional matchup and a highlight from a savvy veteran looking for way to help a new team bring home a championship.
18. A Chris Long strip sack helps to ice the game against the New York Jets.
The New York Jets had the distinct honor of being the only NFL team to have to face the Tom Brady-led Patriots twice in the 2016 season. Both the Bills and Dolphins got to play a game against Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, as the first of their divisional matchups came early in the year, but the Patriots didn't travel to New York until Week 12, fresh off a West Coast trip that saw them beat the 49ers 30-17. The Jets, on the other hand, were coming off their Week 11 bye and a 9-6 Week 10 loss to the St. Louis Rams. On paper, this game had mismatch all over it.
However, this is Jets/Patriots here. Paper doesn't really mean much - especially considering that Ryan Fitzpatrick had previously been benched for Bryce Petty, which means that the Ryan Fitzpatrick Cycle was coming into the meaty portion of the rotation at just the right time:
- Ryan Fitzpatrick stinks
- Fitzpatrick gets replaced by another QB
- The other QB gets injured
- Fitzpatrick comes in and plays very well
- Fitzpatrick does enough to earn a lucrative contract
- Repeat step Number One
New England was getting Fitz right at Step 4, which means that it could more or less be anybody's game.
And for the most part, this was a nail biter. The Patriots, either complacent because it's the Jets or still a little jetlagged from their trip to California, didn't play that well as the Jets hopped out to an early 10-0 lead. They were able to tie the score at 10-10 before a blocked Nick Foles FG attempt and a Stephen Gostkowski shank sent both teams into the locker room at halftime all knotted up. The Patriots finally took the lead midway through the 3rd quarter after a 12 play Patriots drive stalled at the 11 yard line, but the Jets answered right back with a touchdown to take a 17-13 lead into the 4th quarter. New England could only manage a field goal on their ensuing drive, meaning it was 17-16 with just over seven minutes to play in the game when the Jets took the ball at their own 16. A Jets TD drive could seal the game.
Luckily, the defense was able to hold, and the Patriots forced a punt. Tommy B got the ball back at his own 17 yard line with 5:04 on the clock, and was able to engineer a nine play, 83 yard drive in just over three minutes that ended with Malcolm Mitchell's second touchdown of the day. Patriots 22, Jets 17. New England went for the two point conversion to try and make it a full touchdown lead, and James White appeared to have crossed the goal line on a modified Jet Sweep, but booth review showed that the ball never actually crossed the plane.
(Kind of ironic now, isn't it?)
That meant that the Jets, with the ball at their own 25 and 1:56 left on the clock, could win the game with a touchdown. If ever there was a time for some Fitzmagic, this was it.
Fitzpatrick's first pass was a quick out to Brandon Marshall for five yards, pushed out of bounds by Logan Ryan. On 2nd and 5 from the 30, the Jets were in an Empty 5WR set against a New England Flat Nickel. Chris Long, lined up at the right edge rusher spot, got a great jump on the line and leveraged his arms underneath left tackle Ben Ijalana before executing a textbook swim move to get a direct line on Fitzpatrick. As Fitzpatrick went back to pass, Long swatted at his arm, knocking the ball free. Trey Flowers fell on it, and that was all she wrote. New England came away with a huge road win in back-to-back weeks, moved to 9-2, and put themselves into position to take over the conference in the next three weeks. The Jets, however, moved to 3-8, thus guaranteeing yet another season where .500 was the absolute best that they could hope for.
Although at this point, I imagine Jets fans lie awake at night praying for a .500 season.
Ultimately, Chris Long wasn't as impactful during his brief stint in New England as we all would have hoped, and towards the end of his tenure here he saw his snap count diminish significantly as other young linemen stepped up their game. But there are a handful of plays that he made in 2016 that absolutely helped this team do great things (one of which I'll likely be talking about a little later on in this series), and this was absolutely one of those plays.
There are three main reasons why I decided to put the Long strip sack on this list at number 18. One, it's never a bad thing to look back fondly on a game where the Patriots took the Jets out. Two, it was a great individual play and an important moment. And three, this Jets game was the last time that the Patriots trailed at any point in a game until the Super Bowl. Seeing how this was a Week 12 matchup, that's pretty remarkable. Furthermore, it represents the way football is supposed to be played - the offense gets a lead, and then the defense makes plays to protect it.
Check out the play here.
Full game highlights here.