Patriots stun Jets with game-winning punt return in final seconds


The New England Patriots extended a lengthy winning streak over the New York Jets in stunning fashion Sunday when Marcus Jones returned a punt 84 yards for a game-winning score with five seconds left.

The touchdown and ensuing extra point broke a 3-3 tie and gave the Patriots a 10-3 win in a contest that had 17 combined punts.

It was the first time in the NFL this season that a punt was returned for a touchdown. According to NFL Media, it was the first instance in at least the past 40 seasons of a game’s first touchdown coming in the final minute on a score by one side’s defense or special teams.

“How the game ended was phenomenal. It was like a movie script,” New England’s Deatrich Wise said afterward. “Out of all the football movies — ‘Rudy,’ ‘Any Given Sunday,’ ‘Remember the Titans’ — this beats it.”

Jones, a defensive back drafted this year in the third round, fielded Braden Mann’s 10th punt of the game and beat several Jets to the right sideline before turning upfield. Jones then swerved back toward the middle of the field and, after being sprung by a number of key blocks, avoided Mann’s last-gasp tackle attempt as teammates shepherded him to the end zone in front of a delirious crowd at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.

The Jets had one final chance, but after fielding a kickoff, New York’s Elijah Moore was quickly forced out of bounds and did not attempt a lateral.

Some observers, including ESPN’s Robert Griffin III, wondered if the Patriots might have committed a block in the back on the Jets’ Justin Hardee late in the punt return, but officials did not throw a flag. Hardee reportedly expressed frustration with the no-call afterward and said he was told by an official that the block was judged to have come from the side.

Had a penalty been called there, New England would have had an opportunity to try a game-winning field goal. That would have been no sure thing, though, on a windy day that saw Patriots kicker Nick Folk miss two of three earlier attempts.

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Instead, the Patriots got a thrilling win that gave them the same record as the Jets at 6-4 but meant New England swept the two-game season series, following a 22-17 victory last month at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The Jets could have moved into first place in the AFC East with a win but instead fell to last place, ceding what could be a crucial playoff tiebreaker.

New England has beaten the Jets 14 straight times, a streak that dates from Week 16 of the 2015 season. Going further back to their second meeting of the 2001 season — a span of 45 games that includes two playoff matchups — New York has beaten Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s squad just eight times.

The Jets have the NFL’s longest active losing streak against one opponent, and it’s just the eighth time in league history such a streak has reached 14 games. The NFL record is 20, suffered by the Buffalo Bills at the hands of the Miami Dolphins from 1970 to 1979 (per ESPN).

“To me, whether you lose by one or a hundred, they’re all gut punches,” Jets Coach Robert Saleh said after Sunday’s dispiriting defeat. “It’s a loss. Yeah, it’s a crappy way to lose, you feel like you’re exchanging blows from a defensive standpoint from both teams, and if somebody could just make a play we’d get it to overtime, [but] they made a play in the kicking game.”

Saleh added that the performance by Jets quarterback Zach Wilson “wasn’t good enough.” He went on to reaffirm that Wilson, in his second season after New York made him the No. 2 pick in the 2021 draft, would remain the starter going forward.

Wilson’s three interceptions in the teams’ previous meeting went a long way toward helping the Patriots win in October, and despite not committing any turnovers, he was arguably even worse in the rematch. The former BYU star had just nine completions — one fewer than the Jets kicked punts — on 22 attempts for 77 yards and a passer rating of 50.8 while taking four sacks. In the second half, Wilson was 4 for 11 for 12 yards and a net of minus-21 passing yards when factoring in lost yardage on sacks.

Patriots quarterback Mac Jones played with far greater efficiency, completing 23 of 27 passes for 246 yards, with a passer rating of 104.6. He was sacked six times, though, and couldn’t get his team into the end zone.

As it turned out, what Mac Jones could not do, Marcus Jones could with just seconds left to spare in regulation. Per NFL Research, his punt return made for the second-longest go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown in Patriots history — and the longest in 60 years.

“In 15 years, I’ve never won a game like that,” longtime Patriots special teams ace Matthew Slater told reporters. “I don’t even know what happened. That was crazy. Unbelievable effort by Marcus, obviously. … Credit to our guys — when we needed it the most, the guys went out there and strapped it up and blocked and gave him a chance to hit it, and then his talent and God-given ability did the rest.”

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