- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It seems so long ago, but the New York Jets actually played 58 minutes of winning football last month in New England. They came within a play or two of seizing first place in the AFC East, but the moment got too big for them.
They lost the game and lost their way. The overtime loss to the New England Patriots was the start of a three-game funk that left the Jets in turmoil. It changed their season. Now they get a chance to change it back.
You might call it unfinished business.
"There's a sense [of that]," tight end Dustin Keller said Monday after a late practice. "It's a new game and you're moving on, but, yeah, you definitely don't want to lose to a division team twice in the same season. They slipped by and got us last time. We haven't forgotten about it."
That will be on the Jets' minds this week as they prepare for Thursday night at MetLife Stadium. They can derive confidence in remembering how well they played in the last meeting. They also can use it for motivation, realizing the full magnitude of what they squandered that day in Foxborough.
Both teams were 3-3, and the Jets took a three-point lead with 1:37 remaining in regulation. It should've been a bigger lead, but there was a dropped pass by Stephen Hill, questionable play calling by Tony Sparano and an ill-timed Tim Tebow substitution. From there, Rex Ryan's defense got too conservative, allowing a field goal as time expired and another in overtime.
The Jets had 'em. And then they didn't.
They dropped to 3-4 and 3-5 and 3-6. That brought owner Woody Johnson out in public, letting everybody know he wasn't happy at all with the season. He was Steinbrenner Lite. Just like the baseball manager who calls a team meeting on the day his ace is pitching, Johnson delivered some tough talk the week they were playing the lowly St. Louis Rams.
The Jets responded with a convincing win, setting up a Thanksgiving night showdown against the Gronk-less Patriots (7-3). A win would change the complexion of the Jets' season, although you didn't hear any of that Monday from Ryan, who toned down his usual pre-Patriots bravado.
When you're 4-6, you don't have the right to talk trash. The focus should be survival.
"We put ourselves in this spot," Ryan said. "Without question, [the desperation] is there. It's not a panic thing, it's just the fact that we have to be focused and tight."
"It seems like in some of our toughest times, we end up playing our best football," quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "It's a fast way to lose your hair and turn your hair gray, but whatever it takes to win. We've got to get wins. I think this team can really turn it around."
The Patriots have gone the opposite way since the last meeting. They've won four straight, with Tom Brady looking like Tom Brady -- 11 touchdown passes, no interceptions. Once again, they look like an elite team, but people tend to forget how vulnerable they were at the time.
Who knows how it might have played out if the Jets hadn't blown that lead last month?
It ended in the worst possible fashion for the Jets: Mark Sanchez losing the ball on a strip sack by defensive end Rob Ninkovich on their first possession of overtime. Down three points, they were 60 yards from the game-winning touchdown, but Ninkovich beat right tackle Austin Howard.
In his postgame address to the team, Patriots coach Bill Belichick called Ninkovich a "Jet killer," causing a roar among his teammates. (Are there two other words in the English language that give Belichick more satisfaction? Doubt it.) The moment was captured on video and posted to the team's official website.
Offensive linemen don't forget sacks like that. On Monday, Howard said he plans to "leave that in the past." In his next breath, he said he'd use it for "learning and motivation." Asked how it felt to hear Ninkovich referred to as a Jets killer, Howard smiled and paused.
"I've got nothing for you there," he said. "I'm going to go out and play to the best of my ability."
It will take 60 minutes (maybe more) to beat the Patriots, not 58. Five weeks later, still kicking (barely), the Jets have another chance to finish the job.
It's either finish or be finished.
3hEric D. Williams
1dBy Ian O'Connor