By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — They caught just 10 passes between them, hardly an outlandish number for a regular season game, let alone an all-or-nothing playoff battle.
Yet the Jets’ three best wide receivers made each reception count on Sunday. They managed to stick a dagger into the hearts of the vaunted Patriots and all of New England. They did their talking with their hands, legs and concentration.
And now each will have a shot to get to the Super Bowl.
Throughout the regular season Jets fans wondered aloud who would be the odd man out next season — if there is a next season. Should the Jets let Braylon Edwards go and re-sign Santonio Holmes long-term? Should they try to bring back both, forsaking other needs in the process? And what about elder statesman Jerricho Cotchery? He had by all accounts a down season filled with injury and inconsistency. Would he ever be more than a complimentary player? Would he really be the valuable slot guy going forward?
Well, I think it’s safe to say the Jets’ front office would be off its rocker if it doesn’t find a way to keep these three guys together for years. I don’t think anyone would object, especially Mark Sanchez, who is now, thanks in large part to his wideout posse, the NFL’s new rock star quarterback.
For all the incessant talk of “ground and pound,” the Jets slayed the mighty Patriots with a stunning defensive philosophy and timely individual efforts from their passing game. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson did their parts, battering the Patriots for 119 yards on 27 carries, but the receiving tandem of Edwards, Holmes and Cotchery basically took away all the time the Patriots thought they had to figure out the Jets’ perplexing defensive game plan.
This wasn’t a game for fantasy numbers. In fact, no Jets receiver broke 1,000 yards this season, so the fact that they chose their spots on Sunday shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Edwards got things rolling. Cotchery changed the game and Holmes, for all intents and purposes, basically punched the Jets’ ticket to the AFC title game in Pittsburgh.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Following Dennis Byrd’s inspirational speech to the team at the Jets’ hotel in Providence, R.I. on Saturday, Edwards tweeted that he’d never heard a more inspirational call to arms. It was plainly obvious he took Byrd’s words of wisdom to heart for his only two receptions of the game proved huge. A case can be made that the Jets likely would not have won without either.
They came in the second quarter when the Jets made it painfully obvious to the thousands in attendance at Gillette Stadium and the millions watching around the world that this game would be nothing like the 45-3 New England beatdown from Week 13.
Three minutes into the quarter Edwards broke away from coverage on 3rd and 6 from the Patriots’ 45 and hauled in a perfectly thrown 37-yard strike from Sanchez, setting the Jets up at the 8. Two plays later Sanchez found Tomlinson in the left flat for a 7-yard touchdown and the Jets had set the tone for what would follow.
Then with a little more than a minute to go in the half the great Bill Belichick inexplicably called for a fake punt on 4th and 4 from the Patriots’ own 38. As we all know that play backfired when Patrick Chung fumbled the direct snap and was planted by the Jets’ Eric Smith.
Tomlinson followed with two runs for 22 yards and then, following an incompletion, Sanchez drilled a slant to Edwards who then proceeded to carry two Pro Bowl players into the end zone. The Jets were up 14-3 and Gillette was quickly turning into a morgue.
Cotchery and Holmes did their things in the fourth quarter, at a time when the game’s momentum was beginning to shift back to the Patriots.
Late in the third Tom Brady finally got going, marching the Patriots 80 yards in 9 plays, capped by a 2-yard scoring pass to tight end Alge Crumpler. Belichick went for 2 and Sammy Morris took a direct snap over the top, cutting the Jets’ lead to 14-11.
It was at that point that Jets Nation started to get really nervous, perhaps fearing the inevitable red, white and blue avalanche was coming.
But Cotchery — or “J-Co” as he’s affectionately known to the green and white faithful — made sure that would never happen. The seventh-year wideout from North Carolina State has been the personification of class for years and has really stepped to the fore as a voice of reason over the last two seasons, as the idea of being a Jet has become more about big talk and political incorrectness than doing things the “Patriot way.” However, on the field during the regular season Cotchery only had fleeting moments of excellence. A groin injury and a bout with stone handsitis did a number on his effectiveness.
But yet when it mattered most there was Cotchery early in the fourth on Sunday running a seemingly harmless crossing pattern only to turn it into a catch-and-run that netted 58 yards. The play took all the air that had snuck back into Gillette out again and set the Jets up for the first of two knockout blows.
Enter Holmes, the man with the flair for the dramatic and the agility to go with it.
Two plays after Cotchery’s odyssey down the right sideline, Holmes made a catch for the ages in the left corner of the end zone that conjured images of his Super Bowl- and Super Bowl MVP-clinching catch for the Steelers from a few years ago. When the ball left Sanchez’s hands it appeared to have been thrown too hard, too much on a line. But Holmes snared the perfectly placed missile with both hands, pulled it in and managed to get his left knee down while dragging his right foot.
It was a shocking turn of events, one that showed that this man is probably the best money receiver in the NFL. At this point it would be hard for anyone to disagree.
The play put the Jets back up by two scores and in effect punched their tickets to their second straight conference championship game.
Out of respect to the “Three Amigos” of teams of yesteryear, the Jets now officially have one of the best receiving corps in the NFL. They may not put up the gaudy statistics that would pencil them in as no-brainers early in any fantasy draft, but the three of them make plays, big ones.
And win or lose next week, the Jets would be crazy to mess with this dynamic. Sanchez is turning into a legend overnight, but mostly because he has the weapons a team needs to not only win enough games during the regular season, but also to excel in the playoffs. He has a rapport with these three guys that is undeniable. They may not complete each others’ sentences yet, but they seem to know where to be, when to get there and what to do once the ball arrives.
These guys do not care where they play or who will be covering them. They simply get after it and rise to the occasion. Again, it’s now officially impossible to say the Jets are one-dimensional offensively or that Sanchez is not the right guy to lead this franchise.
Are the Jets truly a team of destiny? Or are they simply that much better than everyone else?
The jury is still out on both, but with the law firm of Edwards, Cotchery and Holmes representing the Jets have the look and feel of the most balanced team in football, one that could very well finally end the four decades of misery for the fans of the “other” team in New York.
But these three guys must be kept together — at any cost. Too much has gone down this season to go messing around with the passing game dynamic.
It’s time to ride this three-winged plane into the future.