FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick has gone through periods in his professional life when he has refused to even speak the Jets’ name. He has a lot of history with his former employer, you know, and he has taken all of it personally while beating every head coach that franchise has dared to put in front of him.
As the Patriots were ripping the Jets last year by 41 points, it seemed Belichick was punishing the poor rookie, Robert Saleh, for the sin Eric Mangini committed by exposing New England’s Spygate moves in a different life. Late in that game, Belichick turned to his special teams coach and said with a shrug, “We only punted once, right?”
But Sunday, after imposing on Saleh’s team an entirely different kind of misery, Belichick opened his postgame remarks with something of a charm offensive.
“The Jets are tough, like they always are,” he said. “We expected this kind of a game. They’re the best fourth-quarter team in football, so we knew it was going to be a battle there all the way to the end.”
Belichick has taken down the Jets in 14 consecutive games. Is it possible he felt a bit sorry for them after a rookie, Marcus Jones, broke their hearts in the final seconds of this 10-3 victory with an 84-yard punt return that will be a forever part of this rivalry, if you can call Patriots-Jets a rivalry?
Probably not. After all, the Jets upped the ante before last month’s home loss by openly threatening to pay back the Patriots for running up the score in that 54-13 fiasco at Gillette Stadium. Saleh was angrier about that blowout, and Belichick’s role in it, than he let on publicly, and it didn’t matter in the end. Zach Wilson threw away the game and, after a promising recovery against the Bills, welcomed the opportunity to make things right against the Pats.
The kid was so fired up about it at the team facility, he told reporters that “nobody outside of this building knows what they’re talking about.” And then Wilson went out and proved that some people inside his building don’t know what they’re talking about either. He threw 22 passes for a grand total of 77 yards, and provided more evidence that Belichick took a better quarterback with the 15th pick in 2021 than the Jets took with the second-overall pick.
Mac Jones might have regressed some from his rookie year, but he’s Tom Brady compared to Wilson, who somehow answered “No” to the question of whether he’d let down his defense. Earth to Zach: When your offense gains 2 yards in the second half, and your own coach calls the performance “dog s–t,” the correct answer to that question would be a resounding “Yes.”
In the end Sunday, Belichick just found a different way to finish a game with more points than the Jets had. This contest was an assault on the senses, inspiring Patriots fans to repeatedly boo the home team. The Jets sacked Jones six times, and kept the Pats out of the end zone until their punter, Braden Mann, picked the worst possible time to hit a 3-iron down the middle of the fairway.
Belichick said he drafted Marcus Jones in the third round because he’d been an explosive player at Houston, where he’d once returned a kickoff 100 yards to beat SMU. Donny Osmond, of all people, made the announcement that New England had taken Jones with the 85th pick. Patriots owner Robert Kraft got on the phone with Jones and said, “I heard you’re a great punt returner besides being a good inside cornerback.”
Kraft had no idea. Despite the cold, windy conditions, Jones fielded the liner with ease, headed for the right sideline, and then turned toward daylight. Special teams delivered the NFL’s first punt return for a touchdown this year for the head coach who has always emphasized special teams more than anyone.
Jones did it on a taped-up ankle he’d injured earlier in the game, with his parents in the stands for the first time.
“I have never been part of anything like that,” said Devin McCourty, 13 year veteran. Added Matthew Slater, 15-year veteran: “I’ve never won a game like that at any level of football.”
Belichick has been working in the NFL for nearly half a century, and he said he couldn’t recall a victory like that “off the top of my head.” He credited his current assistant and former player Troy Brown for working wonders with Jones, who left Saleh looking like he’d seen a ghost.
But this time around, the winning coach wanted to take it easy on the vanquished.
“Give the Jets credit,” Belichick said. “Coach Saleh and his staff and their players, they have a really good defense. We all know that.”
Only the Jets weren’t good enough to stop the 70-year-old Patriots legend from improving his career record against them to 37-11. Belichick might coach until he’s 85, if only to haunt the Jets for as long as he possibly can.