The narrative of the 2013 New York Jets turned on a series of five defensive plays Sunday.
The season-defining moments played out over more than five game minutes and two series. There were two stops, one sack, a forced fumble and a pick-six.
And in the middle of it all was Antonio Allen.
It began with 4:18 left in the second quarter. After an opening drive even Tom Brady would envy, Geno Smith had gone in the tank (pick-six included). The Jets punted after another three-and-out and Ryan Quigley’s 34-yard gem gave the Patriots the ball at the 50-yard line. New England held a 21-10 lead and was poised to put the game out of reach before halftime. It stunk of “same old Jets.”
After Brady missed Julian Edelman on a short pass to the left flat, the teams alternated penalties, putting the Pats in 2nd and 15. Having played Rex Ryan’s defense a time or two before, Brady attempted to exploit the Jets’ aggressive nature, dialing up a screen to Stevan Ridley. In 2012, it might have been a first down, if not worse. But these Jets don’t play that noise and Ridley quickly found himself in the warm embrace of a rejuvenated David Harris before he could reach the line of scrimmage.
Now it was 3rd and 17 and this felt important. Stop them here and the Jets might have a chance to score before the half. At the very least, keeping the Pats off the board would be a clear win for a defense that needed one.
As Brady uncorked a deep spiral down the middle of the field, the CBS camera hovered over the Jets’ secondary. Mr. Of-course-he-returned-against-the-Jets, Rob Gronkowski, galloped toward the end zone, open for what felt like forever. An on-target pass – the one Brady always delivers in these moments – would break this team. But the ball was underthrown and as Gronk adjusted – his bionic forearm already planning the spike he’d be dreaming of for months – Allen leapt a herculean leap into the air and swatted the would-be touchdown away. The camera panned back to Brady, frustration and self-hatred pouring off his face.
If the pick six to come was the climactic finale, this was the hair-raising scene setter.
Although there would be no late-second-quarter score, the defense once again kept the Pats off the board on their final drive of the half. The Jets entered the locker room only down 11, but their offense had picked up just one first down in their last four drives. To make matters worse, the Patriots, notorious for turning halftime adjustments into quick points, opened the third quarter with the ball.
As the second half began and the crowd settled back into their seats, Brady began the series in the shotgun, settling into a pocket that suddenly became very crowded. Quinton Coples had pushed left tackle Nate Solder onto Brady’s front lawn, all the while reaching through the air with his right arm and scraping the ball from No. 12’s mitts. An aware Brady dropped on the ball immediately, depriving the Jets of their first turnover in ages but the Jets defense had a loud shot across Brady’s bow.
The buzz in the stadium began to grow as the Patriots broke the huddle on 2nd and 16. Gronkowski lined up tight to the right of the formation, just a step off the line of scrimmage. Allen stood five yards away, mirroring the man he’d covered most of the first half. As Brady took the shotgun snap, Gronkowski ran a shallow slant across the middle of the field and as the pair sprinted off camera, it appeared as if Gronk had drifted behind the 6-foot-1, 210-pound safety. Brady must have seen the same thing, firing the ball in the direction of his favorite target. Except Allen wasn’t a step behind. With the ball just slightly off once more, Allen leapt in front of Gronkowski, snaring the ball out of mid-air and sending Jets fans into almost-concurrent screams of “YES! GO, GO, GO!”
With the entire stadium seemingly at his back, Allen turned upfield, weaving toward the far sideline and easily avoided Julian Edeleman’s half-hearted, diving attempt at a tackle. With 10 yards left to paydirt, Allen outran guard Logan Mankins down the short sideline, somersaulting into the end zone as Greg Gumbel screamed, “Antonio Allen – to the end zone! Touchdown!”
MetLife Stadium roared from top to bottom as Brady and Gronkowski stood there stunned. A game that was there for the taking just a few minutes earlier was suddenly up for grabs thanks to a seventh-round draft pick from South Carolina.
A little over six minutes later, Geno would brazenly dart into the end zone in almost the exact same spot as Allen, giving the Jets the lead and officially turning the tables on the Jets’ big brothers from the north.
A game that could’ve ended very differently – a season that could’ve ended very differently – changed on five not-so-little plays. The Jets are no longer whipping boys or punch lines.
Everything’s different now.
Corey works for NBCSports.com as an editor and can be reached at @cgriffin415 on Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.