EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP)—After all the star pass catchers who graced “Monday Night Football” for 35 years, the final memorable receiving performance was left to—a linebacker?
New England’s Mike Vrabel has made a habit of finding the end zone as a temporary tight end, and he did it twice in lifting the Patriots past the New York Jets 31-21. It was quite a headline-grabber for ABC, with Vrabel providing a unique touch to a game with little distinction other than its standing as the network’s finale.
“I’m trying to fly under the radar the best I can,” Vrabel said. “You turn around and see Tom throwing to you … just don’t mess it up.
“One touchdown’s awesome, but two,” he added, shaking his head. “I tried to give the football to Santa Claus in the stands, but someone took it away from Santa.”
The loss ended ABC’s 35-year run with nice symmetry. It began with a 31-21 Jets loss to Cleveland on Sept. 21, 1970. Next year, the Monday games move to ESPN and NBC takes over the showcase telecast on Sunday nights.
“They can take football away from ABC on Monday night,” announcer John Madden said after the game, “but they can’t take away the memories.”
Otherwise, it was a routine performance by the AFC East champion Patriots (10-5) as they tune up for the playoffs. Even Vrabel making like Jerry Rice wasn’t entirely out of character—he has eight career catches, all for touchdowns, including three this season, which is tied for second on the Pats.
Not that the Jets (3-12) seemed to know how dangerous Vrabel can be as he slipped behind David Barrett for scores of 1 and 2 yards in New England’s fourth straight victory and sixth in a row over the Jets. Vrabel also had a sack, making him the first player with two TDs and a sack in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“It was points for the team, but I wish it was me,” said veteran Troy Brown, a true wideout. “It all counts. Hey, he’s got good hands.”
And good enough moves to get behind cornerback Barrett.
“That’s what makes it worse for me. A linebacker? I’d rather a tight end catch the ball than a linebacker,” Barrett said.
The Patriots have won 18 of their last 19 games after Dec. 1 and are hitting stride while seeking an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl crown.
In brisk winds, Tom Brady, the league’s leading passer, guided a ball-control offense that had an absurd edge in yardage (321-171) and time of possession (43:21). He went over 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his superb 6-year career.
Corey Dillon had two 1-yard runs and New England converted four fourth-down plays.
The only negative for the Patriots was a left leg injury to linebacker Tedy Bruschi late in the first quarter, but he walked out of the locker room on his own after the game.
The Patriots used some prime-time trickery for their first two touchdowns. Vrabel’s first score capped a 13-play drive. He did it again midway in the second quarter. Not bad for a defensive mainstay.
New England got the ball back immediately after his first score when Asante Samuel intercepted Brooks Bollinger’s weak pass and returned it to the Jets 34. But Ty Law, the Jets’ lone Pro Bowl selection, stepped in front of David Givens to pick off Brady’s throw and sped down the sideline 74 yards for the longest touchdown of his 11-year career; he was with New England for the first 10 seasons.
Vrabel’s second score made it 14-7 and Dillon capped a 78-yard march with his first score for a 21-7 halftime lead.
An even more impressive march of 74 yards and 15 plays took up 9:24 of the third quarter, with Dillon adding his second TD. Adam Vinatieri added a 26-yard field goal.
Laveranues Coles caught an 11-yard TD pass on fourth down early in the fourth quarter for New York, which otherwise looked very much like a contender for the first overall draft choice. With one game remaining, the Jets are one of four teams with 12 losses. Only Houston has 13.
In the final minutes, the NFL’s two oldest quarterbacks, 43-year-old Doug Flutie of the Patriots and 42-year-old Vinny Testaverde of the Jets, made token appearances. Testaverde’s 27-yard TD pass to Coles closed the scoring and made him the only quarterback to throw for a touchdown in 19 straight seasons.
“Just to get in and play, for me you couldn’t have scripted a better ending,” said Testaverde, who said he reminisced with Flutie at the end of the game.
Meadowlands authorities banned the sale of beer in the stadium after several incidents of unruly fan conduct when the Jets lost a Sunday night game to New Orleans on Nov. 27. Late in the game, one Jets fan held up a “We Want Beer” sign. He came up as empty as his team.
Brady finished 18-of-29 for 185 yards and has 4,073 yards passing. … Dillon wound up with 77 yards rushing. … Jets LB John Abraham had cramps late in the game and Law had a sore foot. New England’s Samuel had the wind knocked out of him when tackled on his interception and barely played the rest of the game.