gdrv_sm.jpgby Scott Benson

The New England Patriots earned a berth in next week’s divisional round of the AFC playoffs – just two games away from Super Bowl 41 – with a decisive 37-16 win over the New York Jets in today’s AFC Wild Card game in Foxboro.

New York hung with New England through three quarters, and matched their no-huddle, quick snap strategizing step-for-step, but the bully Patriots made clear the difference between them and their New York rivals by completely owning the fourth quarter of an elimination football game.

Leading by just a touchdown with eleven minutes to play, the Patriots ground nearly six and a half minutes off the clock behind Tom Brady before extending their lead to fourteen on a Brady to Kevin Faulk 7y swing pass away from broken coverage. Less than thirty seconds later, the Patriots had a blowout when Asante Samuel doubled back in coverage to grab a Chad Pennington pass and race 36 yards for the close-out score. The Patriots added two sacks and a Vinny Testaverde cameo before Bill Belichick (now 12-2 lifetime in the playoffs) warmed the hearts and wet the eyes of wizened sportswriters everywhere by embracing Eric Mangini at midfield.

Though his numbers were modest (just 212 yards in 34 attempts), Brady was all-american material again. The Patriots clearly had the answer for the Jets blitzers this time with the no huddle quick pace, and Brady was masterful in the middle of it, taking short drop, short route throws to the perimeter to avoid sacks, maintain possession, and most importantly, move the chains and the scoreboard against one of the league’s stingiest scoring defenses. With the help of the on-a-roll running game, New England twice had six-minute touchdown drives (one that ate the final seven minutes of the first half; the second the game definer to seize control in the fourth) that dictated the outcome of the game as much as anything did. They piled up 26 first downs and punted just twice.

Pennington and the New York offense moved the ball on the Patriots defense (the Pats outgained NY by a slim 358-347 margin) but as usual, the story was the Patriots red zone defense. Three times the Jets drove inside the Pats 20 and came away with no touchdown, settling each time for a Mike Nugent field goal. Their only touchdown came on yet another freak big play involving Jerricho Cotchery (who caught a 15 yard throw and outran an overmatched Patriots coverage for a 77 yard score), which gave them a relatively brief second quarter lead.

But like they were with the blitz pick ups, the Patriots remained a step ahead of the Jets all day, thanks in part to three field goals by their own draftee kicker, Stephen Gostkowski. The Ghost hit two big third quarter kicks (one a 40 yarder) that kept the Jets at least seven points behind until Brady and Samuel could put them away. In a related story, Michael Felger was last heard shrieking about Adam Vinatieri on Bob Lobel’s program this morning.

Jabar Gaffney was the surprise stand out for the Patriots, leading all receivers with 8 catches and 104 yards. Gaffney took the lead from the opening drive (a humdinger three-minute, 60 yard touchdown march that Corey Dillon finished with an 11 yard run), taking his routes to a 8×8 open area about seven yards up right sideline. Brady kept hitting him with no protest from the Jets (including an ailing Andre Dyson, who was forced from the game immediately), and before you knew it, the Patriots were in the end zone with a HUGE momentum-establishing opening drive.

The Jets overcame a slow start to first dig in, then take the lead. Mike Vrabel couldn’t cover Cotchery on a route up the right hash (he later had troubles with Chris Baker too), and after Pennington looped in a throw, Artrell Hawkins couldn’t reign Cotchery in. Much like he had at the Meadowlands in September, the big galoot outraced New England to its own end zone, and suddenly, the upstart Jets were in front to start the second period. I am buoyed by the thought that Cotchery will not be visiting the Patriots defensive backfield again this season.

The Patriots offense regained control by the half, though. First, Gostkowski tied it for the Pats after a 50 yard drive was stopped inside the Jets 10. After the Pats D held and forced a punt on the next Jets possession, Brady led the Pats on a 80 yard corker that featured a pounding Pats ground game behind Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney. They set up Brady, who finished the drive by hitting Dan Graham on a threaded third down throw into double coverage from the Jets 1. The Patriots were back in front by seven by halftime.

There they remained, as the teams swapped field goals through the third quarter. After Nugent hit his third and final kick to begin the final period, Brady went to work again. After nearly being picked on a long throw to Chad Jackson to start the drive (Jackson actually made a nice strip there), Brady pulled in the reigns, going back to the ground with Maroney and Corey Dillon (running hard after an early fumble set up Nugent’s first three-pointer) and hitting Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and Gaffney with crucial throws. When the Jets tightened again inside their own 10, Brady moved Faulk pre-snap and sent him alone into the flat for the quarterback’s second TD throw of the day. Sixty yards, six points, and perhaps most importantly, six minutes off the clock. The Pats led by two touchdowns with five minutes to play.

Samuel blew it open on the second play of the next Jets possession, when he worked a combination coverage to perfection. The soon-to-be free agent corner, who has not heard the last of his comments to Jackie MacMullen in today’s Globe, looked to be following Laveranues Coles deep when he doubled back, right in front of Justin McCareins. He grabbed Pennington’s throw and – unlike last week – he didn’t hesitate to tack on another score.

And so it was, save for The Hug. Despite reports to the contrary, no guard would be changing today.

The Patriots defensive line got consistent pressure with just four men, allowing enough players to drop into coverage and keep Pennington out of the end zone. Seymour led the front in tackles, Ty Warren was a force early, and Vince Wilfork pushed the middle and hit Pennington. Tully Banta Cain did too, sacking him twice. You cannot say the Patriots aren’t getting contributions from practically everyone.

Rosevelt Colvin caused a third quarter stir when he broke in on Pennington’s left to swat down a screen pass as the Jets approached midfield. Suddenly, everyone (at least Wilfork and several dozen people on the Patriots sideline) realized it was a fumble, as the ball had gone parallel to the line of scrimmage, and the returning nose tackle (back after missing the last three games) rumbled 31 yards to the Jets 15 with the recovery. The play set up Gostkowski’s second field goal, and restored a seven point lead.

The Patriots special teams had a couple of dicey moments early with Justin Miller, but by and large they had the edge. Maroney was back on kick returns, and twice he got the Patriots to the 40 to start a drive.

An invigorating win, and one that reminds (thanks to that fourth quarter) us just how good we have it in New England. And how far they have to come in New York. Their yapping dog media and fans would do well to remember just how helpless their team was over the final eleven minutes today as they force down their latest steaming helping of Shut The F**k Up.

So it’s on to San Diego from here. Let me be the first to say that if the Patriots can get by the league-leading Chargers next week, there will be no stopping them. God help whoever they play. If they’re still standing this time next week, they WILL win an amazing fourth Super Bowl this decade. Like they used to say in New York – I guarantee it.