New York Jets' Eric Decker leaps into the seats and celebrates with the fans after catching a 6 yard game-winning touchdown pass in overtime against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on December 27, 2015. The Jets defeated the Patriots 26-20. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The script unfolded in agonizingly familiar fashion for the New York Jets during the final 20 minutes of regulation Sunday afternoon, when a second-half lead against the New England Patriots shriveled to nothing heading into an overtime that seemed sure to end with a defeat as painful as it would be inevitable.
But then the twist ending nobody foresaw -- a rare questionable tactical maneuver by the most accomplished head coach in the NFL -- happened, and with it came an unexpected opportunity for the Jets to write their way into the playoffs.
Bill Belichick's decision to kick off after winning the overtime coin toss came back to haunt the Patriots as Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Eric Decker 2:37 into overtime to give New York a stunning 26-20 victory at a euphoric MetLife Stadium.
The fifth straight win by the Jets (10-5), coupled with the Pittsburgh Steelers' stunning 20-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, vaulted the Jets ahead of the Steelers for the final AFC wild-card spot. The Jets, who were 4-12 under Rex Ryan last season, will qualify for the playoffs if they beat Ryan and his Buffalo Bills next Sunday.
"That's all you can ask for," Jets rookie head coach Todd Bowles said.
But as tends to be the case with the most polarizing franchise in all of professional sports, the topic of conversation following the game was all about the Patriots, and in particular Belichick's curious decision after New England -- which came back from second half deficits in each of its last three wins over the Jets -- scored 17 of the final 20 points of regulation to climb out of a 17-3 deficit and force overtime.
"Nothing surprises you about the Patriots and strategy and what they think," said Fitzpatrick, who finished 26 of 41 for 296 yards and three touchdowns but had had a fumble returned 14 yards for a touchdown by Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins to begin New England's second-half comeback. "So we were excited for the opportunity to get the ball and have a chance to put them away."
Reporters inside the visitor's press conference room in the basement of MetLife Stadium crowded around smart phones trying to make out the exchange between Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater and head referee Clete Blakeman. It appeared as if Slater was arguing with Blakeman after Blakeman declared the Patriots would kick off.
But a few minutes later, a formally dressed Belichick -- who grimaced as he stepped to the podium and whose left leg constantly fidgeted during a press conference that featured almost as many awkward pauses as it did questions -- said " ... there wasn't any confusion," after the Patriots won the toss.
"I thought that was the best thing to do," Belichick said about kicking off.
Belichick said he had no regrets about kicking off, though in his 39-word answer he referred to the Patriots' defensive performance during the Jets' final series of regulation, when a pass interference call on cornerback Malcolm Butler extended the drive and left New England (12-3) with only 25 seconds following a punt into the end zone.
Quarterback Tom Brady (22-of-31, 231 yards, one touchdown, one interception), whose nine-yard touchdown pass to wide-open running back James White tied the game with 1:55 left, took a knee before the fateful coin toss.
"There was a pass interference penalty on third down, they got the stop, we get the ball back where we want it," Belichick said. "Then we get picked, beat on two flag patterns. We just didn't play good enough defense."
The Jets collected just four first downs in their final four drives of regulation but needed just five plays to end the game. After a two-yard gain by running back Chris Ivory, Fitzpatrick hit wide-open wide receiver Quincy Enunwa -- who dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass with 37 seconds left in regulation -- for a 48-yard gain down the left sideline.
Ivory gained four yards on the next play and Fitzpatrick then connected with wide receiver Brandon Marshall (eight catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns) for a 20-yard gain. On the next snap, Decker beat Butler into the right corner of the end zone, caught the winning touchdown pass and leaped into the stands to celebrate with fans.
"Those are the moments you cherish and remember," Decker said. "It's never really the stats you remember, it's those moments with your teammates in the locker room, the excitement. The way we've been playing the game the past five weeks is what it's all about."
And now the Jets have a chance to keep playing into the second weekend in January.
"A win is a win and they're great in the NFL," said center Nick Mangold, who has been with the Jets since 2006. "So this is a good one. But it doesn't matter if we don't do anything with it. So we've got to get back to work. Look forward to next week."
NOTES: Patriots LT Sebastian Vollmer was carted off with a leg injury during New England's first series and almost immediately declared out for the game. ... RB Steven Jackson made his Patriots debut with a 5-yard gain in the second quarter. He had seven carries for 15 yards. Jackson, who recorded eight straight 1,000-yard seasons with the St. Louis Rams from 2005-2012, was signed Monday. ... Among the Jets' inactives was CB Dee Milliner, who was out with a hamstring injury. He has played in just 21 out of a possible 47 games since being selected in the first round of the 2013 draft. ... Jets WR Brandon Marshall's first catch of the day was his team-record 94th of the season, breaking Al Toon's mark set in 1988. He has 101 catches this season and is the first player in history with six 100-catch campaigns.