Stop the Bandwagon

EAST RUTHERFORD — The Gang Green bandwagon came to a halt in the Meadowlands on Sunday. But was it a temporary stop or the end of the ride? The Jets insisted that their fall-from-ahead 17-16 loss to the New England Patriots and their enchanted quarterback, Tom Brady, was merely a pit stop for Shrek rather than more of that old December dreck.

"People, especially if they don't play the game, are going to ask us why we lose in December," said cornerback Marcus Coleman. "Generally, they're people who sit up in the stands and don't know a damn thing about it."

"We don't even think about that," said tight end Anthony Becht. "Honestly, that stuff's a crock. We went in thinking we were going to win, no doubt about it. We felt confident. I felt good out there and I know a bunch of other guys did. We came up short."

"This," running back Curtis Martin stated, "is just a hiccup."

 Herman Edwards was not instructing his players to line up for flu shots, yet for the first time in what seemed like forever, the Jets did not respond to their first-year coach's command. They came out of their dangerous bye week and into that dreaded 12th month and had only about 30 minutes of football in them, not 60. As a result, their four-game winning streak was snapped and they fell to 7-4 and out of first place in the AFC East behind the victorious Dolphins. And they got the Patriots back into the thick of the race at 7-5.

All in time for Sunday's trip to Pittsburgh to play the 9-2 Steelers in their new Heinz Field home. "I think our confidence is still high," said Vinny Testaverde. "The silver lining is that we still have five games left."

Hopefully for Jets fans, Testaverde has 10 more halves that resemble Sunday's first half (season-high 164 yards passing) more than the second (20 yards). The Jets rode up and down on their quarterback's arm all afternoon.

 In the first half, the hosts looked as if they would pick up where they left off following their 24-0 stunner in Miami two weeks ago. On the opening drive, rookie Santana Moss christened his home NFL debut with his first pro reception, a 33-yarder. And Testaverde followed that up three plays later with a gem out of the West Coast offense playbook — a slant on which Laveranues Coles split corner Ty Law and safety Tebucky Jones, who was diverted by Becht's route. Four minutes into the game it was 7-0.

One drive later it was 10-0. At halftime it was 13-0, giving the Jets a 54-0 edge in the first halves of their last four games. Business as usual. Except that for offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, alarm bells were going off.

"You can't open it up and play like that and score 13 points," Hackett said of passing on 24 of the Jets' 38 first-half plays. "We're playing against a good team, and when you open it up like that, you've got to get two or three scores." Yet as long as the Jets defense kept stifling Brady and running back Antowain Smith, they could have gotten by. But New England coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Charlie Weis had an idea to shorten up Brady's pass drops.

Simultaneously, the Jets — who lost corner Aaron Glenn to a second-quarter sprained knee and may not get him back for the Steelers — started to play softer on the Patriots receivers. Voila! After managing 55 yards, six punts, and no points on their first six possessions, the Patriots put together a winning finish. On their next three drives, they scored their 17 points.

The centerpieces of the first two marches were a pair of initially innocent third-down completions by Brady — a 46-yarder to former Jets wide receiver Fred Coleman and a 40-yard dumpoff to Smith. Then Adam Vinatieri hit the game-winning field goal with 6:29 to play.

"The plays that hurt us were really the short ones," Edwards said. "A slant goes for 40 yards, we don't tackle the guy. They hit another on a checkdown, we play the coverage wrong, and all of a sudden they're at the 5-yard line. When you give up big plays, which we hadn't been doing the last couple of weeks, they gain momentum." The Jets defense produced no takeaways for the first time in 19 games and gave up two rushing TDs, to Smith and fullback Marc Edwards, after giving up none the previous 11 quarters.

But while the defense fiddled, the offense turned. Testaverde went from his most productive half of the season (164 passing yards) to one of his least (20 yards). The Jets' final drive said it all. On second down from their 44, Testaverde overthrew Richie Anderson, who was separating from safety Lawyer Milloy for a probable back-breaking touchdown. "I thought Richie was being jammed down the field," Testaverde said. Then came the fateful fourth-and-five play at the Patriots 44 with 2:07 to play. With Curtis Martin and Wayne Chrebet open, Testaverde went to third option Becht, who was bracketed by Terrell Buckley and Milloy. Buckley intercepted, Brady converted on third and two, with 1:46 left, and the Jets glumly moved on to their next chapter.

"Everybody in their season is going to have their different plays," said Becht. "We got ours this week." "This game could've done a lot for us," said Martin, who wasn't even asked about becoming the third back in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first seven seasons. "It could've given us confidence going into Pittsburgh, it could have solidified us to win our division. "Now we've created some more odds. And we've got to deal with these odds."

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