But with the inside track to the AFC East championship and maybe a first-round playoff bye just waiting for someone to claim it, the Jets buckled under the pressure and let New England take command. The Jets can talk all they want about the importance of beating the Patriots and staying home in the playoffs, but they just missed a golden opportunity to make it a reality.
And because they did, here's the new reality in the AFC East: It's the Patriots' division to lose, and the Jets may have to scrape just to make another wild-card run. That's how critical it was for New York to defend its home turf against New England, and even Ryan after the game all but conceded his team's division title hopes might be gone.
"It looks doubtful right now,'' said a despondent Ryan, asked if his team's goal is still attainable. "I don't know. What am I going to say? Maybe we'll just guarantee the fact that we're out of it. Last time I did that [in 2009] we made the playoffs. So, yeah, we got no chance.''
Why so glum? For good reason. For starters, the Patriots (6-3) just swept the season series against the Jets (5-4) for the first time since their undefeated 2007 regular season and now hold what amounts to a two-game lead (one game in the standings, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker) over New York. Secondly, the Jets have already lost to potential AFC wild-card contenders such as Oakland (5-4) and Baltimore (6-3), and thus trail both the Raiders and Ravens in terms of tiebreakers.
New England also has the advantage of a more favorable schedule from here on out, with the Patriots having just finished its toughest stretch of the season. None of New England's next six opponents have a winning record (Chiefs, at Eagles, Colts, at Redskins, at Broncos and Dolphins), and the Patriots close out the regular season at home in Week 17 against a Buffalo team that looks headed for a losing record. In the worst-case scenario, New England looks headed for at least 11 wins with that schedule, a number the Jets simply won't be able to beat unless they're perfect from here on out.
Coming into Sunday night, all the tea leaves seemed to favor the Jets finally getting past the Patriots in the regular season. New England was fresh off consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and the Giants, and had looked positively ordinary on offense the past three games, scoring 20 points in a win over Dallas, and just 17 and 20, respectively, in the losses to the Steelers and Giants.
The Jets entered with a season-saving three-game winning streak and the momentum boost of having played their most complete game of the year last week in Buffalo, where their defense returned to elite form and provided the backbone of a 27-11 win. This was supposed to finally be the Jets' time, and New York looked ready to mark a changing of the guard atop the AFC East.
But then the game started, and the Patriots made the plays they had to have, while the Jets seemed a little slow, a little lost and a little overmatched. Sadly for New York fans, it's a somewhat familiar sight by now. As is the vision of New England owning the top of the division standings, with the Jets fighting their way out of second place and into the AFC wild-card picture.
"It's just tough,'' groused Ryan, whose team must now get ready in a hurry for a Thursday night game against the surging Broncos. "They beat us twice [this season]. We think we're as good as they are, but clearly we're not. We weren't today, that's for sure. We've been down this road before. I apologize to our fans. I thought our fans were ready to go, just like we were. It's disappointing.''
He was not the ex-Redskins defensive lineman whose signing spawned big summer headlines in New England, but veteran defensive end Andre Carter was the star of stars for the Patriots defense, with a franchise-record 4½-sack performance. Carter was in the Jets backfield all night long, and his pressure also produced the second-quarter intentional grounding penalty that was every bit as effective as a sack. Carter came into Sunday night with a team co-leading 4½ sacks (tied with defensive end Mark Anderson), so he doubled his season total. He has a team-best nine sacks on the season, with three multi-sack games, tending to collect his quarterback drops in bunches.
The Patriots' defensive line simply looked quicker off the ball than New York's and the Jets' offensive line struggled to deal with the speed exhibited by both Carter and Anderson, who recorded New England's other half-sack. Carter had 2½ sacks in the first half and finished with six tackles and eight quarterback hits overall.
"That defense is a lot better than what people give them credit for,'' Ryan said. "I know they're 32nd in the league and all that, but you get up a few scores and they can tee off on the quarterback. We have to do a lot better job protecting the quarterback.''
It's amazing how much better a pass rush makes New England's pass defense. Sanchez completed just 20 of 39 passes for 306 yards, but he threw two interceptions (both by linebacker Rob Ninkovich), with one touchdown and a measly 64.7 passer rating. Sanchez didn't help his own cause, repeatedly showing no blindside instinct or awareness of the impending pass rushers. His second interception to Ninkovich was of the pick-six variety, from 12 yards out, sealing the big New England win late in the fourth quarter.
Brady and Belichick, who have earned three Super Bowl rings together, had to wait a couple weeks for the honor, after tying Miami's Dan Marino and Don Shula at 116 wins in Week 7. But losses to the Steelers and Giants followed, giving the Brady and Belichick the chance to set the mark against their division foe, the Jets, who are New England's most bitter rivals these days.
Let the record show Brady and Belichick tied Marino and Shula in 35 fewer games than the Dolphins tandem required, giving them a much higher winning percentage (117-35, .770) than the Miami duo (116-68, .630). For Marino and Shula, the last of their Miami victories was recorded in 1995, Shula's last season on the sideline. New England's coaching-quarterback tandem also puts Miami's to shame on the hardware front, winning eight AFC East titles in their nine full seasons together (discounting 2008, when Brady was injured and missed all but Week 1), and outdistancing Marino and Shula 3-0 in Super Bowl rings.
Brady wasn't superb against the Jets, but he overcame some uncharacteristic early inaccuracy and finished strong, completing 26 of 39 for 329 yards, with three touchdowns, no sacks, no interceptions and a 118.4 rating. And now he and Belichick are officially the gold standard.
Gronkowski already has eight touchdown receptions this season, well ahead of his rookie pace of 2010, when he set the Patriots team record for most touchdowns by a tight end with 10. His 18 touchdowns since the start of last season leads all NFL tight ends, and are five more than Jason Witten of Dallas and six more than San Diego's Antonio Gates.
No less than Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis offered the following assessment of Gronkowski's night: "He was outstanding,'' Revis said. "Him and Tom [Brady], they were connecting every chance they got.''
The Jets defense had no answer for the 6-foot-6 Gronkowski, and the result was New York gave up 37 points at home, the most in Ryan's three-year coaching tenure. Gronkowski now has seven or more receptions in four consecutive games, with his eight against the Jets tying the career high he had last week in the loss to the Giants. His 113 yards were another career-best, beating out a 109-yard showing he had against Buffalo in Week 3.
"He's a great player and we depend on him,'' Brady said of his favorite tight end. "He came up very big tonight. We needed him to come up big tonight. It was a tough matchup. He's big, but he has good speed. We have to keep finding ways to get him the ball.''
With 52 catches for 709 yards this season, Gronkowski is on pace to set the team record for yards by a tight end, besting Ben Coates mark of 1,174 yards in 1994. Gronkowski would finish with 92 catches for 1,260 yards at this pace, just missing Coates' record of 96 receptions in '94.
"The kid makes a lot of plays,'' Ryan said. "He's a factor in the red zone. The young man did a nice job of catching the football.''
Sanchez drew particular ire from his head coach late in the first half, when he took a timeout with 1:24 remaining, just before New York scored a touchdown on his two-yard quarterback draw and took a brief 9-6 lead. Ryan didn't like stopping the clock and giving New England more time to score before the half, and he told NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya that Sanchez's timeout call was the "stupidest play in NFL history.'' Of course, that was after Brady had indeed answered the Sanchez touchdown with an 18-yard scoring pass to Gronkowski just nine seconds before halftime, putting New England up to stay at 13-9.
Asked to assess Sanchez's night, Ryan tersely offered: "He was inconsistent. Like the play of the rest of the team.''
Sanchez took five sacks, and at times he seemed to have little sense for the pressure that was closing in on him. Just one of his two picks was clearly his fault, but his pick-six to Ninkovich was obviously costly and he put a little too much mustard on a third-quarter pass to running back Shonn Greene, which Greene allowed to bounce off him and deflect to Ninkovich.
"I didn't play well enough for this team to win,'' Sanchez said. "I didn't play well enough for our offense to be successful. We weren't good enough on third down (5-of-13) and we didn't capitalize in the red zone early on. Later on in the game we put our defense in a couple tough spots.''
As well as Sanchez has played at times in his first three NFL seasons, he still doesn't seem to have the complete confidence of the Jets coaching staff, and he still makes crucial mistakes at inopportune times. Like his ill-fated timeout just before the half, which proved costly when the Patriots scored the go-ahead touchdown.
"[Our] time management was [an] absolutely critical error,'' Ryan said. "That's my responsibility. I own that one. You make that many mistakes against that team, there's no chance.''
But it wasn't Ryan's fault as much as it was Sanchez's, and the Jets can't keep trying to cover up for their young quarterback and taking the blame off his shoulders. It's his third season, and this is a New York team that talks openly and often about its Super Bowl aspirations. The reality is that New York still can't count on Sanchez like it thought it would be able to by now.
"That's totally my fault,'' Sanchez said of the timeout. "I can't burn the timeout that early. We have to use all the seconds we can and make it tougher on him to go all the way down the field. And I just have to manage the clock better, and that's a rookie mistake. You can't do that in your third year.''
Exactly our point.