FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Starting out at a breakneck offensive pace and then downshifting into deliberate efficiency, the New England Patriots wore down the stubborn New York Jets, 37-16, yesterday at Gillette Stadium to advance to the AFC divisional playoff round.
The Patriots will travel to San Diego to face the top-seeded Chargers Sunday.
AFC East champion New England (13-4) opened and closed the first half with a no-huddle offense and each time scored a touchdown. In the second half, while protecting the lead, the Patriots settled into a methodical attack that produced enough points to keep the Jets at arm's length and then buried New York (10-7) with a late interception return for a score.
The victory avenged the Patriots' regular-season home loss to the Jets.
The Patriots set a rapid pace on the game's first possession, quick-stepping 65 yards in 10 plays for an early lead. Although they would temporarily give up that lead, the sprinting start set the tone for the game and kept the Jets' defense on its heels.
"I've never been in a game where it was like this," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "We were rushing the line of scrimmage and rushing the run plays. At one point, we ran the same play something like four times in a row and in my earphones [I heard], 'Run it again.' ... Sometimes you get the rhythm out there and you just try to make them stop it."
A key to the Patriots' win was a touchdown just before halftime when running back Kevin Faulk ripped off some of the runs that Brady referred to, successive dashes of 7, 8 and 9 yards. Then, with 14 seconds left in the half and no timeouts remaining, Brady hit tight end Daniel Graham in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown and a 17-10 lead; the Jets never caught up.
"They had him pretty well covered, and I saw the linebacker had his head turned. He couldn't really see the ball," Brady said. "So I put it in a place where only Daniel could get it, and he made a great catch on it."
A three-time Super Bowl winner, Brady turned in a performance typical of his playoff career, 22-for-34, 212 yards and two touchdown passes.
New York pulled within 23-16 early in the fourth quarter on Mike Nugent's third field goal, but a 13-play touchdown drive by New England that took up 6:23 and ended with a 7-yard reception by Faulk finished off the Jets.
New York quarterback Chad Pennington (23-for-40, 300 yards, one touchdown, one interception) said having to settle for field goals doomed the Jets.
"They are a good red-zone defense. They just set a franchise record for [fewest points allowed]," Pennington said of the Patriots. "We did a good job of getting down there; we just didn't put it in the end zone. I give them credit for holding us out."
As has become their habit, the Patriots, who have won nine straight home playoff games, produced an unlikely postseason offensive hero. In the past, it has been linebacker Mike Vrabel catching touchdown passes in two Super Bowls. Yesterday, it was little-used wide receiver Jabar Gaffney catching eight passes for 104 yards after making just 11 receptions during the regular season.
In fact, Gaffney didn't even begin the season with New England, joining the team in October after being cut by the Philadelphia Eagles. His best days before yesterday were a 10-catch performance last season and a 109-yard day in 2004 when he played for the Houston Texans.
Gaffney was particularly key during the first drive on quick out patterns that established New England's tempo.
"They started out in the no-huddle - it was something that we had worked on - but that initial drive. I think that was one answer," Jets coach Eric Mangini said. "They did a better job where they incorporated the quick outs."
The game's oddest play occurred in the third quarter when Pennington's pass to the left flat was batted away by Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. With most players on both teams letting down and believing the play was over, Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, realizing the pass was a lateral, picked up the ball and rumbled 31 yards to the Jets' 15-yard line.
New England wound up kicking a field goal that gave it a 23-13 lead. After the long fourth-quarter drive that ended with Faulk's touchdown grab, Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel's 36-yard return of an interception - he had 10 during the season - closed the scoring.
A bit of anticipated drama was when Mangini, a former assistant coach under New England's Bill Belichick, and Belichick met at midfield for the post-game greeting. After the Jets had beaten the Patriots, 17-14, in November, Belichick offered his former assistant what was clearly a half-hearted greeting.
Reportedly, the Patriots had been upset about the Jets' pursuit of New England players in the offseason.
Yesterday, Belichick made a steady march across the field, shoved a cameraman out the way, and hugged Mangini.