Playoff loss an added incentive this time around
When the Patriots last saw the New York Jets, there were two deflating images that stood out.
The first was Jets running back Shonn Greene scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the playoffs, placing the ball on the Gillette Stadium turf and pretending to take a nap upon it. The second: Jets coach Rex Ryan bounding down the sidelines and jumping into a joyful dog pile in the end zone.
Those events pushed the Patriots into the offseason, and prompted Ryan to say that while he didn’t think his Jets had quite yet caught the Patriots, “we know we can beat them.”
With those thoughts and disturbing memories fresh in mind, the Patriots went about their business this offseason. And it is with those thoughts and those memories that they emerge for the 2011 season with enough artillery to take down the Jets when it counts.
Of course, the 28-21 playoff loss that ruined a stellar 14-2 regular season wasn’t the sole reason why Bill Belichick acquired receiver Chad Ochocinco, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and the rest of the veterans that comprise this season’s squad. “I don’t think you build a team based on a handful of plays,” Belichick said.
But during a flurry of broad-view moves after a locked-out offseason, the man whose rings Ryan won’t kiss did enough to put his team in position to stomp on the feet that receiver Wes Welker famously tweaked.
“I think we have a chance,” Belichick told the Herald in his understated way. “I think there are some things that are OK. I think there are some other things that need work. Whether those will work out or not, I don’t know. I honestly don’t see how anybody can know where they are right now. You haven’t faced teams that game plan for you and attack your weaknesses.”
That kind of game plan is what the Jets executed in order to beat the Pats twice last season, most importantly in that playoff upset. The Patriots return in 2011 ready to deal with that. Whether their roster additions were made with the Jets in mind or not, it’s impossible to look at what was done and not consider how they might affect this red-hot rivalry.
• Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez wasn’t touched in that playoff game. Welcome edge rushers Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis, all of whom have eclipsed 10 sacks in a season. And then there’s Haynesworth, who’s specialty is to push the pocket up the middle.
“For a man of his size, Haynesworth has incredible quickness,” said Greg Cosell, executive producer of NFL Matchup. “He is a great inside rusher.”
• The Pats receivers only totaled 128 yards in the playoff game against Jets star cornerback Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Welcome Ochocinco, one of the game’s premier weapons against man-to-man coverage.
“I’m really good at one thing,” Ochocinco said. “Getting open and catching the ball.”
• Jets receivers victimized Pats cornerbacks for two touchdowns against tight coverage. Welcome 6-foot-1 rookie Ras-I Dowling and a healthy Leigh Bodden back into the fold.
•Tom Brady was attacked from all sides while being sacked five times. Welcome Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters to solidify the middle and play opposite star guard Logan Mankins. Don’t forget the Pats drafted first-round tackle Nate Solder to ensure Brady’s future and signed defensive end Shaun Ellis away from the Jets — a guy that sacked Brady twice.
A broader vision
The moves should help in the Border War, even if Belichick didn’t have the luxury of simply reacting to the last loss. The coach maintains that he doesn’t create a team with a magnifying glass pointed at one game book.
The Patriots played the Jets three times last season, with two losses sandwiched around a 45-3 shellacking. In Belichick’s mind, none of those specific performances led to his desire to pick up the phone and deal.
That’s not how the evaluation process works.
“We had a whole body of work,” Belichick said. “We saw our team over 16 regular-season games, four preseason games and a playoff game. Based on all that, there are certain areas that you feel like you need to improve in. You have your draft choices, you have your free agency, you have trades, you have younger players in your system that can improve and you try to improve wherever you can.”
Either way, it wouldn’t be the first time a team acquired a player with an opponent in mind. Ex-Jets coach Eric Mangini said that’s what he did with Ohio State center Nick Mangold in 2006.
“When I got to New York, the thought process was, ‘If you wanted to win the division, you had to beat New England,’ ” said Mangini, now an ESPN analyst. “That hasn’t changed. One of the reasons that we wanted Nick Mangold was so that we could handle Vince Wilfork. If you didn’t have somebody who could match up with him, you couldn’t run the ball in the middle of the defense.”
In a rivalry, how can you resist? Belichick was clear that no minds were altered after the playoff game. But it didn’t hurt.
“You say, ‘Here’s our football team,’ ” Belichick said. “What do we need to do to have a better football team? Of course, part of it is reflected on the season that you had last year, but that’s in the books. We played the same team and played a lot better in one game and not so good in another game. There were three different games.”
Loss left a mark
What the Jets did to the Patriots in the playoffs was ugly.
They mixed up their coverages and frustrated Brady by locking down his outside receivers and check-downs. They ran at the Patriots with their physical manner, allowing Sanchez to relax. They forced Brady to second-guess himself by not blitzing as much.
“Sometimes it’s a simple game made complicated by coaches,” Ryan told NFL Network this summer. “I try to take that out. Let’s make this game about the way it’s always meant to be played and that’s fast, physical and fun.”
Brady, who recently declared that he’ll “never get over” the playoff loss to the Jets, had five games with a below 100 passer rating in 2010. Two were against the Jets, showing that some weaknesses had been identified.
Teams go into a season aware that some issues can be exploited in certain matchups. “And then if there’s anybod y else that can (exploit the weakness), then you might be in trouble,” Belichick said.
One cause of the playoff loss isn’t going away — Brady. Yes, Brady.
Cosell, also senior producer NFL Films for 31 years, went back to his notes to break down the game and began committing virtual blasphemy. He took issue with the reigning MVP’s performance (29-of-45, 299 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) more than anything. Cosell began reading from notes, saying how Brady didn’t recognize a blitz by defensive back Drew Coleman. It was one of several examples.
“Now, that rarely happens,” Cosell said. “With Tom Brady, you can count on one hand over the last five years when Brady got surprised by a blind-side blitzer. And then, Brady was over-reactive to pressure — he perceived pressure at times when it was not there. Brady saw ghosts in this game. He was not sharp mentally.”
Cosell wasn’t alone. ESPN’s analyst Ron Jaworski used a similar phrase: “To a certain degree they spooked Tom Brady in that game.”
The Jets confused him, rushing three when he thought they were bringing the house, then switching back. Brady was frazzled and wound up holding the ball rather than targeting his receivers. His focus this preseason?
“Decision-making, which is something I have been thinking about,” Brady said.
Brady readily admitted the Jets are on his mind, too. He’s not alone, even as Welker says with a straight faced, “I think we measure ourselves against everybody.”
The Patriots, winners of the AFC East in the last two seasons, believe they’ve improved several areas that were targeted. But will that be enough to trump the Jets in the playoffs?
Don't watch me, watch T.V. Pats are very uneasy about us and they should be.