By Steve Lichtenstein
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In the normal course of NFL business, teams possessing the ball with a lead in the final five minutes look to milk the clock with their running games.
When your quarterback is Tom Brady, however, convention goes out the window.
The undefeated Patriots took over up by three points with 5:32 remaining in Sunday's game against the visiting Jets. Ten plays later -- nine of which were Brady passes -- New England scored an insurance touchdown to go up by 10 points with a little more than a minute left.
That was the ballgame.
Brady has beaten the Jets eight times in the last nine meetings and very often the outcomes have come down to the same determining factor -- the Jets' defense doesn't make the one big play in the fourth quarter to propel them to victory.
This one stings because the Jets KNEW what was coming. Brady mostly operated in an empty backfield formation. He handed off to a running back a grand total of five times all day.
A pick, a strip-sack -- even incompletions would have been helpful just to stop the clock. Instead, Brady went 7-for-9 for 65 yards on the drive, capping it with 15-yard flip to a wide-open Rob Gronkowski to beat an all-out blitz.
Jets first-year coach Todd Bowles, who did not shine in his first test on end-game clock management, took the heat in his postgame press conference for a communication failure on that 2nd-and-3 play. Bowles' decision not to use the first of his three timeouts prior to the play not only wasted an opportunity to get his defense on the same page, it also allowed the clock to run down about 40 seconds.
The Jets could have used at least some of those ticks in their valiant comeback attempt. Nick Folk cut the deficit to 30-23 with a field goal and the Jets recovered the ensuing onside kick, but they ran out of time.
So instead of keeping the dream of AFC East supremacy alive for a few more weeks, the Jets limped home with a 4-2 record and a trip to improving Oakland on the slate for next weekend.
I share all Jets fans' disappointment with this loss, but there seems to be some confusion regarding the difference between games that Gang Green "should" have won versus games that "could" have been won.
File this one under the latter category. Now if they had blown last week's game to Washington, that would have been a "should have won."
But to say that they should have beaten the Patriots because they failed on multiple opportunities to come away with touchdowns in the red zone and get their defense off the field on third downs (especially a killer 3rd-and-17 conversion by New England early in the fourth quarter), well, those aren't exactly givens against the defending champions.
Don't even bother to complain that wide receiver Brandon Marshall's drop in the end zone on a 3rd-and-7 from the 12 early in the fourth quarter cost the Jets the game. If you watched the replay closely, Marshall and Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan were grabbing each other from the line of scrimmage all the way to the right pylon (the refs let the boys play, calling just four penalties on each team despite numerous illegalities that were supposed to be points of emphasis this season -- such as pick plays and illegal hands downfield). Marshall had to let go of Ryan's jersey and turn all the way around to his back shoulder to get his hands into position.
Of course Marshall should have caught it -- he took full responsibility in the locker room -- but it was much less egregious than Julian Edelman's drop at the goal line in a similar third-down situation on the Patriots' opening drive of the second half.
That was one of about 11 dropped passes by Patriots receivers, according to the New York Post. But neither his receivers' stone hands nor the total absence of a running game (Brady led New England with 15 yards on four attempts), nor the patchwork offensive line that counted only one member with more than a dozen NFL starts, kept Brady from torching the Jets' vaunted defense for much of the second half. In the fourth quarter alone, Brady went 13-of-16 for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
I can't disagree more with those who believe the Jets have the better team. Remember, folks, it isn't determined by lining the players up 1 through 53 with each vote counted equally. Quarterback matters quite a bit more.
Not that Ryan Fitzpatrick was awful -- after gifting the Patriots three points when he carelessly fumbled on the opening drive, he managed the game well and converted a good percentage of third downs.
However, the sequences at the end of both halves on Sunday were sufficient proof that it will be incredibly difficult for the Jets to capture a division flag until they upgrade the position so it is not such a gargantuan mismatch against Brady.
After a second-quarter field goal gave the Patriots a 13-10 lead at the two-minute warning, the Jets received the kickoff with all three timeouts available. Belichick lets Brady loose to go for a late score in these situations. Heck, almost all coaches give their quarterback some rope in that spot.
Bowles, in a move straight out of his predecessor's playbook, got conservative. A valid assumption would be that Bowles didn't trust Fitzpatrick, who went three-and-out on the previous two possessions that (along with the ongoing punt team nightmares) reversed field position and momentum.
Bowles didn't want to risk it happening again and give New England an additional opportunity to extend its margin.
And after Marshall incredibly recovered the onside kick around midfield with 14 seconds remaining, the Jets did not even give Fitzpatrick a chance to throw into the end zone. According to both Bowles and Fitzpatrick, 50 yards was deemed too great a distance. On a true postseason contender, it shouldn't be.
Despite the obvious risks, Fitzpatrick instead threw short to Eric Decker over the middle and tried to spike the ball to halt the clock when it was set for the next play.
Except that Marshall wasn't set at the snap. Because the Jets were out of timeouts, the clock automatically ran out with the Jets 37 yards short of a miracle.
The calendar is also advancing towards expiration dates on some of the Jets key personnel, which is why Gang Green's strong start has caused many fans to take a leap of faith this season. Core guys like Marshall, Darrelle Revis, David Harris, Nick Mangold and Fitzpatrick have all passed their 30th birthdays, so obviously this has to be a "win-now team," right?
Unfortunately, Brady remains in their -- and the rest of the league's -- way.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1
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