EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., Dec. 26 -- The New England Patriots shrugged off their uncharacteristic meltdown from six days before and restored some order to their world by looking like a Super Bowl contender again. Quarterback Tom Brady threw a pair of touchdown passes and their defense shut down the New York Jets as the Patriots clinched a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs with a 23-7 win Sunday at Giants Stadium.
The Patriots (12-3) rebounded from Monday night's stunning loss at Miami, when Brady threw four interceptions and New England fell apart down the stretch. But Sunday, the Patriots once more resembled a team fully capable of winning its third Super Bowl title in four seasons, easing to a 23-0 lead with a workmanlike performance that included three short field goals by Adam Vinatieri and touchdown throws by Brady of 16 yards to tight end Daniel Graham in the second quarter and six yards to wide receiver Deion Branch in the fourth quarter.
New England's Eugene Wilson (26) is pumped after picking off New York's Chad Pennington (10) in the fourth quarter.
(Ray Stubblebine -- Reuters)
"Going in, we thought of this as the determining point of the season,'' said Brady, who completed 21 of 32 passes for 264 yards and wasn't intercepted Sunday. "It was such a tough week last week, and we came back and played well against a good team. . . . At 12 o'clock when we had our meeting today, we said at 7 o'clock we'll know what this team is all about.''
Tailback Corey Dillon ran for 89 yards on 29 carries, setting a single-season team record with 1,519 rushing yards. The defense kept the Jets (10-5) scoreless until quarterback Chad Pennington's 15-yard touchdown pass to wideout Santana Moss with 9 1/2 minutes left. Pennington was sacked three times, lost a fumble and threw two interceptions in a 22-for-36, 252-yard passing display, and the Jets gave an inept performance on a day when a victory would have clinched a playoff spot.
Those in the crowd of 77,975 became increasingly disenchanted, then headed for the exits early on a chilly, windy evening. The only highlights for the Jets came when tailback Curtis Martin broke the team's single-season rushing record despite being limited to 33 yards, and the club retired the jersey of Joe Klecko at halftime.
"They just came down here and, as I told our football team, they flat-out kicked our behinds on offense, defense and special teams,'' Jets Coach Herman Edwards said. "That's how it all boils down. We knew what was at stake. We needed to win a game at home to get back in the playoffs, and we didn't do it.''
The Jets still can get into the playoffs as the fifth seed in the AFC with a triumph at St. Louis next weekend or with a loss by Buffalo or Denver, but would be left out based on tie-breakers if they lose to the Rams while the Bills and Broncos win to force a three-way tie for two postseason berths.
Pennington had spent the week trading barbs with members of the New York media, lecturing reporters for what he regarded as overly harsh coverage of the team and telling them they were abusing their "privilege'' of covering the Jets. By the end of the first half, though, the number of critics requiring scolding by Pennington had grown considerably, as the fans booed the club off the field.
Pennington threw an interception to end a promising opening drive by the Jets, putting the ball into Tedy Bruschi's hands on a first-down play from the Patriots 40-yard line as the middle linebacker dropped into coverage. The Jets' second possession ended when Martin was dropped for a four-yard loss on a third-and-two play from the New England 32, leading to a punt, and they managed only nine yards of offense in the second quarter while the Patriots were taking control of the game.
The Patriots moved in front when Vinatieri connected from 28 yards midway through the second quarter to cap a 14-play drive. Brady got things into gear the next time New England had the ball, dropping a superb throw between two defenders to wide receiver David Givens for a 35-yard gain, and then following a fine play-action fake by zipping a pass to Graham for the touchdown.
The Jets got the ball 1 minute 44 seconds before halftime and ran only 19 seconds off the clock while going three plays and out, and Troy Brown's 23-yard punt return plus Brady's 21-yard completion to Branch set up Vinatieri's 29-yard field goal seven seconds before the break. The Patriots weren't done. They fell on the ball with one second left in the half after the Jets failed to grab Vinatieri's squib kickoff, but Vinatieri pulled his 50-yard field goal try just wide to the left as time expired.
No matter. Vinatieri connected from 26 yards in the final minute of the third quarter to make it a 16-0 game after another time-consuming drive by the Patriots, and the boos only grew louder for the Jets' offense. Pennington opened the fourth quarter with a horribly misguided throw right into the arms of safety Eugene Wilson for an interception, and the Patriots cashed in on Brady's pass to the wide-open Branch in the end zone.
"Maybe it was good [the loss to the Dolphins] was a Monday night game,'' Bruschi said. "It gave us less time to think about it.''
Said Patriots safety Rodney Harrison: "All the guys were embarrassed, ticked off, frustrated. You can't blow leads like that going into the playoffs. You want to be playing better than that heading into the playoffs. It was a humbling experience for us, but we came out today and performed like the Patriots should perform.''