- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In many ways, this was worse than 45-3, last season's Monday Night Massacre.
This was the biggest regular-season game of the Rex Ryan era and the New York Jets responded Sunday night by soiling their own carpet, embarrassing themselves at home against the seemingly vulnerable New England Patriots.
The moment was too big for the Jets, who brain-locked their way to a 37-16 loss at MetLife Stadium. With a chance to take sole possession of first place in the AFC East and perhaps hasten the fall of the "Evil Empire," the Jets committed "the stupidest play in football history" (Ryan's words) and self-destructed in the crucible of a high-stakes showdown.
Hello, wild-card race.
"It's not smart," safety Jim Leonhard said. "We've got to learn to win big games like this and make someone chase us."
Eleven months ago, the Jets went to Foxborough, facing a similar opportunity. Both teams were 9-2, and the Jets got beat by six touchdowns, meaning they've lost by a combined total of 63 points in these so-called epic confrontations for first place.
They could attribute last season's debacle to a Murphy's Law game. Not this one. The Jets were in the game into the third quarter and committed a litany of mental and physical mistakes, exposing themselves as pretenders, not contenders.
"I think we're as good as they are, but clearly we're not," said Ryan, who practically waved a white flag by admitting it's "doubtful" they can win the division.
The biggest blunder came from Mark Sanchez, and, no, we're not talking about his two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and unnecessary sacks. With 1:24 left in the second quarter, the Jets' quarterback suffered a brain cramp by calling a timeout with more than 20 seconds left on the play clock.
At halftime, Ryan told NBC sideline reporter Michele Tafoya it was "the stupidest play in NFL history." Indeed, Sanchez should've let the play clock run down before calling time. There was no need to save time, not at the Patriots' 2-yard line, and those 20 seconds proved critical. Even though the Jets scored to take a 9-6 lead, they left too much time for Tom Brady.
With nine seconds left before halftime, Brady threw the first of three touchdown passes, a momentum-shifting dagger that seemed to affect the Jets in the second half.
"Absurd," linebacker Calvin Pace of late collapse.
Afterward, Ryan said the poor clock management was his fault, but that was just him being overprotective of his quarterback. Sanchez screwed up, and he admitted it, calling it "a horrible mistake." He said he regretted it as soon as he did it. He's not going to be happy when he hears Ryan's colorful description of his faux pas.
"I can hear the coaches in the headset, [Brian Schottenheimer] in the headset talking about wanting to take a timeout, so I took it right away," Sanchez said. "And that's totally my fault. I can't burn the timeout that early."
Sanchez should know better; he's in his third season. Over on the Patriots' sideline, Bill Belichick probably wanted jump out of his hoodie.
That bonehead decision by Sanchez symbolized the Jets' night. Of course, there was plenty of blame to go around.
They failed to make the simplest of plays. Joe McKnight muffed a punt, and teammate Donald Strickland failed to recover the loose ball even though he was the first to pounce on it. The Patriots converted that break into a field goal, three of 17 points they scored off turnovers.
McKnight's muff came in a disastrous third quarter. A few minutes later, calamity struck again. Sanchez and running back Shonn Greene failed to connect on a simple check-down pass. It should've been an easy pitch and catch, but Sanchez threw it too hard, it hit Greene in the kisser and it ricocheted to linebacker Rob Ninkovich.
That set up another field goal.
The Jets still were in the game, but they came unraveled when the Patriots went to their hurry-up attack. It was a masterstroke by Belichick, who knew the faster tempo would cause problems for the Jets' defense because of their reliance on substitutions and pre-snap adjustments.
The Jets were clueless, leaving open receivers all over the field. The recently slumping Brady caught fire and exploited mismatches, leading 57- and 84-yard touchdown drives to put the game away. Brady was 5-for-5 for 65 yards and a touchdown in the no-huddle, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
"No excuse," Leonhard said of their inability to adjust to the no-huddle. "They hurt pretty much everyone with it and we continued the trend."
Pace said, "To a certain degree, we lost our composure. ... It got us discombobulated."
By the time the play call got from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in the booth to secondary coach Dennis Thurman on the sideline, and radioed into the huddle, Brady was throwing to tight end Rob Gronkowski for another back-breaking completion.
To beat the Patriots, you need to be mentally sharp when it comes to situational football, and the Jets were nowhere close to that. Offensively, it was the same story: They were outsmarted. They allowed five sacks, four by Andre Carter, failing to handle the Patriots' pressure packages on third down.
The Patriots owned the 32nd-ranked defense, and injuries forced them to play backups of backups, and yet they were good enough to hold the Jets to 5-for-13 on third down.
The Jets were schooled by the masters, Brady and Belichick, on a night when they expected to finally overtake their nemesis. It was the most points allowed at home by a Ryan-coached team, snapping a three-game winning streak that got them into a title shot with the old champions.
"The perfect opportunity," running back LaDainian Tomlinson called it.
Instead of seizing it, they did the unthinkable: They made 45-3 seem like a hiccup.