It’s not often that the NFL’s top two seeds lose on the same day, but that’s what happened Sunday afternoon when the NFC-leading Panthers lost their shot at an undefeated season against the Falcons and the AFC’s Patriots fell to the division rival Jets. It’s also fairly uncommon for Bill Belichick to find himself outcoached, and his players out-thought, but that certainly seemed to be the case in New England’s 26–20 loss to the Jets. Belichick called for his offense to run about a minute and a half off the clock at the end of the first half, and then ran off another thirty seconds at the end of regulation, before his team won the coin toss in overtime.
The ensuing sequence brought even more confusion. Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater called heads, the coin came up heads, and microphones picked up Slater saying, “We want to kick that way.” Referee Clete Blakeman took that to mean that the Jets would receive the kickoff, which is what happened. Slater looked very confused and asked Blakeman, “We won—don’t we get to choose...” before the microphones cut out. Then, Blakeman appeared to explain to Slater that by his call, New England elected to kick.
It initially appeared to be Slater’s screw-up, but after the game, the Patriots told a different story.
“We went out for the toss, and Coach told us that if we won the toss, we wanted to kick off,” Slater said. “Obviously as a player, you ask three or four times because you want to double-check and make sure you get it right. We won the toss, we chose to kick off just like Coach instructed us to, and the only confusion was whether we got to choose which direction we got to kick the ball. We double-checked and triple-checked with Coach, and Coach had a discussion with the referee. I was just checking to make sure we did or didn't get to choose which way we wanted to kick off, but we certainly wanted to kick off. That was our intention going in there—we won the toss, we were going to kick off. We did what we wanted to do.”
Belichick was predictably terse when asked about the decision.
“We thought that was the best thing to do.”
The Patriots were done in by their failure to execute at several important points leading up to and after that confusing sequence. The Jets’ lone drive in overtime, capped off by Ryan Fitzpatrick’s six-yard touchdown fade to Eric Decker, featured a series of blunders by New England’s usually strong defense. The Pats were lost on a pick play on a 48-yard pass from Fitzpatrick to Quincy Enunwa, then Chris Ivory ran for a four-yard gain, then Fitzpatrick hit Brandon Marshall for a 20-yard gain, and then, it was over. The Jets moved to 10–5 and passed the Steelers for the AFC’s sixth seed. If they win against the Bills next week, they’re in.
The Patriots are already way past in, but this game was a troublesome display on both sides of the ball. Fitzpatrick looked far too unstoppable at times, finishing 26 of 41 for 297 yards, three touchdowns and no picks, while Marshall terrorized the New England secondary, catching eight passes for 115 yards and two of those touchdowns. Marshall, traded from Chicago in the off-season, is now the only player in NFL history with six 100-catch seasons.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady would be happy to be throwing to receivers with 100 catches between them in their respective careers. Brady completed 22 of 31 passes for 231 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and outside of the always-uncoverable Rob Gronkowski, he didn’t have much to throw to, with injuries taking Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman out of the equation. Keshawn Martin led all non-Gronk Pats receivers with seven catches for 68 yards, and running back James White scored New England’s one receiving touchdown. Gronk was at his beastly best when it really counted, making a 26-yard reception on fourth-and-nine at the Jets’ 35-yard line with 2:31 left in the game, setting up White’s game-tying score on the next play.
But for most of the game, the Patriots appeared overwhelmed. They couldn’t consistently cover Marshall and Decker, were troubled by New York’s power-based rushing attack, and Fitzpatrick seemed to have their number more often than not. It’s entirely possible that, with all the injuries Belichick’s team has suffered this season, the Patriots have reached the passed the level of attrition they’ve been able to navigate in seasons past. Brady is the only Patriots starter on offense who has played the same position in every game this season, and while that stat is slightly skewed by the fact that New England has mixed up their offensive line combinations throughout the season, it’s indicative of a stretch in which Belichick and Brady have had to make more out of less than they usually have to.
While the Patriots’ ill-fated decision to defer in overtime will draw much of the attention, the real story should be the Jets, who have won five straight and have a legitimate passing game seemingly for the first time since Joe Namath was throwing deep to Don Maynard in the 1960s.
The Patriots, who have long been able to brag about that part of their offense, certainly can’t do so now. They’re still in the AFC’s top spot at 12–3, but they have not looked like themselves in a while now due to all their injuries.
And when Bill Belichick is made to pay for strange decisions you’d expect to backfire for other coaches, and they backfire for him as well, New England looks completely average.