EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — You can take all your game plans, all your playbooks, all your film and your chalk and your clipboards — and toss them in a garbage can. Pour on some lighter fluid, throw in a match, and let a couple of bums down in the Bowery have a warm night for a change.
Might as well, if you’re the New York Jets and you’re going to get knocked out of the playoffs by a what’s-his-name who picks up a ball that everyone thinks is dead and runs it in for a touchdown. Hey, why bother with all the paperwork, right?
You can plan an offense. You can plan an defense. You can’t plan this.
It was midway through the third quarter Saturday. Wild-card game. Jets vs. Patriots. The Jets were trailing, 16-7, but still feeling confident. They were at home. Their quarterback, Ken O’Brien, had a hot hand.
The Pats kicked off, and the Jets’ Johnny Hector returned the ball to his 16, where he was hit by a Patriot named Johnny Rembert.
Johnny R-e-m-b-e-r-t. Right.
As Hector went down, the ball suddenly appeared on the turf. Rembert rolled on top of it, and got up. No Jets tried to tackle him. Nobody did much of anything. A teammate pushed Rembert toward the end zone. “Take it in!” the teammate hollered. So Rembert lumbered in, the way players do (they teach you that from high school on; when in doubt, always run the ball into the end zone), but big deal. Nobody paid much attention. Play was dead, right?
Oops. Immaculate Reception Part II
A few moments later, when the referees broke from their huddle, a penalty was charged to the Jets, declined by the Patriots, and the touchdown was declared good.
Every jaw beneath a green and white helmet dropped wide open.
“We thought Hector was stopped and down,” said New York coach Joe Walton.
He wasn’t. The Jets were. The game was suddenly 23-7 and out of reach. Slipped away without so much as a tackle. Surprised? Hey. These are the playoffs. The weird prevails. You remember the Immaculate Reception, right? So you don’t blink in disbelief when this happens, any more than when you see the biggest crowd in the Patriots’ post-game locker room around Rembert, a second-stringer who’s lucky to play one out of four downs in the regular season.
“I’ve never had this many people around me before,” Rembert said. “I’m losing my voice. This is great.”
Well, yes. Great for the Pats, who hadn’t won a playoff game since 1962, when they pledged allegiance to the American Football League.
And not so great for the Jets — who lost the game, 26-14. They’ve looked awesome at times this year, but had a penchant for getting bruised and busted at the wrong times. Saturday was no exception. O’Brien had to leave the game in the third quarter when a slight concussion — suffered after a mean lick by Andre Tippett — gave him trouble remembering the plays and formations.
And Freeman McNeil, the Jets’ Mr. Everything, was slowed by a knee injury. He gained 41 yards.
But when they recap this one, it will be the turnovers, as usual, that everyone will point to. The Jets had four — two interceptions, two fumbles lost — while the Pats had none. The Jets also had weirdness go against them. In the playoffs, that’s the kiss of death.
“When Rembert ran that ball in for the score,” said the Patriots’ Steve Nelson, “that pretty much sealed it. We could feel it. A big game was finally going our way.” Past failures washed away
Now, they’re not used to winning the big ones in New England. The Patriots are a team that always surprises and always disappoints. Always at the wrong times.
But Sunday was a cleansing rinse. Their young quarterback, Tony Eason, played well. Tony Franklin hit four field goals. The defense was as unforgiving as a winter wind off the Charles River. And then, of course, there was Rembert — make sure you spell it right — who at least had the good sense to finish what he’d started.
For the Pats, Sunday washed away the mistakes, the soiled reputation. Gave them a nice smell, at least until next Sunday, when they meet the Raiders in Los Angeles.
For the Jets, it was like swallowing vinegar.
But that’s what the playoffs are all about. Change of fortunes. Russian Roulette. Take a spin as a Wild-Card and you might wind up Super.
Or you might wind up standing around, as an opponent you barely heard of waltzes into the end zone with your season tucked under his arm.
“We were in awe when it happened,” said Hector, who lost that ball in the first place. “We just couldn’t believe it. . . . I still can’t. What can I say? It’s not something you can plan for.”
Or, to paraphrase a famous philosopher, the best-laid plans of mice and men and football players often wind up in the dumper.