Tom Brady and the Patriots may not be the same team that won three Super Bowls, but they put the Jets in their place with a convincing 37-16 victory that could wound New York's psyche, if not their playoff hopes
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Credit: Julio Cortez/AP

Despite upsetting the Patriots in the playoffs last season, the New York Jets still look up at New England, the way a scrappy younger brother knows he’s not The Man until he can manhandle his big brother in the backyard. Last night was supposed to be the Jets’ moment, the changing of the guard in the AFC East. The Patriots were looking old, they’d lost two games in a row, and Bill Belichick’s defense was statistically the worst in the league. They were ripe for the taking. Yet, when the dust cleared, it was Tom Brady and the Pats giving the Jets noogies all night, as the “big-brothers” reestablished themselves with a convincing whipping of the Jets, 37-16. The sibling metaphor couldn’t have been more apt — and humbling — for the Jets than at the quarterback position, where Brady wore down the Jets’ pressure D, while New York’s Mark Sanchez made New England’s defense look like the 1985 Bears.

The thrashing capped a Sunday full of put-up-or-shut-up matchups, pitting some of the season’s young upstarts — San Francisco, Detroit, Buffalo, and Cincinnati — against traditional contenders. Detroit and Buffalo, it turns out, might not yet be ready for primetime. The Lions were spanked by surging Chicago, 37-13, and the Bills looked godawful against Dallas, 44-7. The Bengals at least gave the Steelers a game, proving that they’re not a fluke after a 24-17 loss. And in the biggest game at the old Candlestick Park in more than a decade, the Niners ran their winning streak to seven games with a 27-20 win over New York. “[San Francisco] might be the best team in the National Football League,” said Rodney Harrison, who clearly hadn’t reached his weekly quota of ridiculous comments intended to piss off the state of Wisconsin.

Two coaches who won’t be listening to talk radio this week? Atlanta’s Mike Smith and Philly’s Andy Reid. Smith went for a risky 4th-and-inches in overtime that quickly backfired and cost his Falcons the game against New Orleans. And Reid’s Eagles laid another stinker, losing by four at home to Cardinals backup quarterback John Skelton. Now 3-6, Philly is sadly the Lindsay Lohan of the league. Great talent with loads of promise — but a total trainwreck. They’ve coughed up five fourth-quarter leads this season, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Two more such losses, and Michael Vick might be posing nude. Not only are their playoff hopes practically finished, but Reid’s job might be at risk if it weren’t for the complete meltdown and utter disgrace that’s taking place not far away in Happy Valley.

Meanwhile, last week’s Sunday Night darlings, Joe Flacco’s Ravens, crashed to earth in Seattle, and in Kansas City, Denver’s miracle-worker Tim Tebow won again — despite only completing two passes. Two passes! (No, it wasn’t snowing or unusually windy.) It’s Jurassic football — Viva Tebowball!

Sunday night at least promised another hard-hitting round in the long and increasingly bitter feud between the two rivals — the all-time series between the two teams was tied 52-52-1. Plus, you had Belichick and Rex Ryan going head-to-head — in fashion. The three-time Super Bowl winner is a function-over-fashion guy, wearing the same hooded sweatshirt that your old gym teacher wore in 1986. Ryan’s black sweater-vest, on the other hand, might be the biggest sweater-inspired eyesore since Bill Cosby ruled Thursday night. The burly coach has singlehandledly undone all the fine work done by Chandler Bing and Jim Tressel, and in all honesty, I’m not sure the sweater-vest will ever recover.

But it wasn’t fashion that did in Ryan and the Jets. It was Adam Sandler. Before the game, Ryan spoke to Bob Costas — who himself bravely tried to pull off a black mock turtleneck — about his role in next year’s movie, I Hate You, Dad, alongside the Jack & Jill funnyman. Recall that back in 2007, Jets coach Eric Mangini — The Man-Genius — cameoed on an episode of The Sopranos. The next season, the promising Jets crashed to 4-12. Thus, Ryan’s Hollywood minute was a bad sign (though at least he left his sweater-vest at home during his scenes in the film.)

NEXT: Tom Brady takes Mark Sanchez to school

Early on, though, it looked like the Jets were game. Sanchez marched the Jets down the field after the opening kickoff before stalling inside the Pats’ 10-yard-line. Yet kicker Nick Folk missed from only 24 yards away. Brady responded with a few quick darts to move into New York territory. He even hit underachieving Chad Ochocinco with a rare reception — the disappointing acquisition seemed so surprised to find himself with the ball in open field that he errantly stepped out of bounds. The catch, though, helped lead to the Pats’ first score, a 50-yard field goal. On their next possession, Brady found Ocho again for 53 yards and New England connected on another field goal to go up, 6-0.

Nevertheless, Brady looked off-balance. Some of his throws were way off the mark, making you wonder whether he and his receivers were in sync or whether Brady had finally lost his fastball. He had to hurry to beat the play-clock a few times, he fumbled a shotgun snap, and when he desperately unloaded a pass to avoid a sack in his endzone, the refs rightfully called it a safety. The Jets followed with a touchdown on the following possession, taking a 9-6 lead, and it did seem like they might have Brady’s number.

And just like that, Brady solved it. In the final 80 seconds of the first half, he took the Patriots 80 yards to answer with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight-end Rob Gronkowski, who served as Brady’s super-size security blanket all night while the Jets clamped down on his normal favorite target, Wes Welker. And in the second half, Brady took control while Sanchez looked… well, Tebowish. Both quarterbacks faced constant pressure, but only one barely flinched. Keeping the Jets off-balance with a hurry-up offense, Brady routinely sensed the pass-rush, dancing left or right, stepping-up, never taking his eyes off downfield before finding the open man at the last possible moment. Sanchez, on the other hand, looked like he was running a Chinese fire drill. When Patriot defenders got in his face, he seemed to panic, taking his eyes off his receivers. Mind you, this wasn’t the best defense in the league he was facing, but he certainly made them look it. Sanchez is tough — I’ll give him that. But his game right now — no matter what GQ thinks — is not pretty. He did connect with Plaxico Burress on the first play of the fourth quarter to narrow the gap, 23-16, but he then threw a pick-six that ultimately sealed the Jets’ loss.

The Jets D stunk, but the difference in this game was the quarterbacks. Brady was like a baseball pitcher who realizes in the first inning that he just doesn’t have his good stuff that day. But he just keeps battling, getting batters out on guts and guile. Ultimately, his stats were gaudy: 26-of-39, 329 yards, 3 TDs, no picks. But they were beside the point. He masterfully controlled this game through sheer will, dealing the Jets not only a blow to their playoff hopes but a potential psychological setback as well. The Jets now have to rebound quickly and face the Broncos on Thursday night, in a game against the mighty Tebow that I’m sure will have Bill Walsh turning over in his grave.

If you’re a Jets fan, did this game suck the air out of the season? Did Sanchez just have a bad game or is this as good as he gets? If Harrison thinks the 49ers are the best team in football, and Tony Dungy says Houston is now tops in the AFC, are you willing to put some Super Bowl money down on NBC’s two “favorites”?

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