FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Chad Pennington turned to his left and threw a screen. And then, like almost everyone else on the field, he watched the Patriots run off with the New York Jets’ season.
New England linebacker Rosevelt Colvin knocked down the ball, then buried his head in his hands and ran toward the end zone in frustration over the missed interception. The Jets also ignored the ball as it rolled around in their backfield.
Only Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork seemed to be aware that the pass was a lateral — and thus a fumble — and the play had not been whistled dead. He picked up the ball and rumbled 31 yards to the Jets 15 before he was brought down by Jerricho Cotchery, whose delayed reaction was still quicker than the rest of his teammates.
“When he batted it down, my mind just went somewhere else,” Cotchery said after the Patriots beat the Jets 37-16 on Sunday. “Their guys are celebrating. You just automatically think incomplete pass at the time. I give a lot of credit to Vince Wilfork. He wanted the ball.
“I started running toward the ball, but it was too late.”
Cotchery saved a touchdown by catching the 325-pound Wilfork, and the Patriots wound up settling for Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard field goal. But instead of having a chance to tie the game, the Jets trailed by two scores for the first time in the afternoon: 23-13 with 4 seconds left in the third quarter.
“That broke the game open for us,” Patriots’ lineman Richard Seymour said. “I saw the ball between his legs, but then I saw Rosey running down the field, like the play was over.
“I didn’t even see Vince pick the ball up. By the time I looked up, Vince was running down the field with a guy hanging on his arm. He rumbled and rumbled and rumbled. But if I had picked it up — ’Game over!”’
He could have — if he’d been thinking as quickly as Wilfork.
“Vince made the smart play,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We always talk about, ’Get on the ball and ask questions later.”’
The message got through.
“I just saw the ball on the ground. And anytime the ball’s on the ground, just pick it up. And that’s what I did,” Wilfork said.
“Once I got it in my hand, I look over to the sidelined and I see everybody like ’Go! Go! Go!’ And I go, ’OK.’ And that’s when I started running. I didn’t know that it was a fumble. I knew it had a good chance of being one, so that’s why I at least had it in my hand.”
Kevin Faulk caught a 7-yard TD pass from Tom Brady to make it 30-16 with 5:16 left. Then, on the Jets’ second play of the next drive, Asante Samuel added to Pennington’s pain by returning an interception 36 yards for a touchdown to make it 37-16.
In all, Pennington was 23 for 40 for 300 yards and a touchdown, an interception and the fumbled lateral. He was also sacked three times and hit several more, leaving the game for one play midway through the first quarter when he got his bell rung.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“The guys in this locker room have worked extremely hard,” Pennington said. “There is no way we were walking out on that field not believing we were going to win. We believed we were going to win and do the things we needed to do to win, and it just didn’t work out.”
The loss ended the Jets’ run to the playoffs in the first year under coach Eric Mangini, who was hired away from the Patriots and Belichick, his longtime mentor. New York won the last three games of the regular season to make the playoffs in what was expected to be a rebuilding year.
But the Jets wanted more.
“This is sports. This isn’t a fairy tale,” said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is from Miami, where someone else will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
“You look at the big picture and say it was a good job on our part. But if you’re competitive, if you’re a player, you don’t want to go 10-6 and lose in the first round of the playoffs.
“For us, it’s tough that we don’t get where we wanted to. You reflect on the season later on.”
PFT: Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith said the draft process taught him an important lesson on taking criticism.
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