FOXBORO – All either team needed was one great play, any great play, with the Patriots and Jets locked in a 3-3 deadlock for what seemed like an eternity in their pivotal divisional matchup Sunday.
Enter Marcus Jones.
The rookie cornerback donned his hero cape, and came up that magical play. He obliged with what was, for all intents and purposes, an 84-yard walk-off punt return for a touchdown.
It was the play of the game, and what could very well prove the play of the season, given the stakes.
It was the only touchdown of the game, as the Patriots and Jets were locked in a defensive duel. After the Patriots defense stopped the Jets on a third-and-one from New York’s 34, with Kyle Dugger making a terrific play to drop Michael Carter for a two-yard loss, there were 26 seconds left on the clock in regulation.
That wasn’t much time for the Patriots offense to do much, especially considering they hadn’t done much all afternoon. Most expected the game would go to overtime.
If anything, they hoped a good return would help put them in position to make a few quick completions to possibly get in field goal range.
Jones did even better than that.
He fielded the punt at the 16, went up the right sideline before cutting across the field at the 50 and using his blazing speed to race into the end zone with five seconds to go to seal the 10-3 victory.
Most of the Patriots raced from the sideline to the end zone to greet their newest hero as the crowd on hand at Gillette Stadium was sent into a frenzy.
“How the game ended, it was phenomenal,” said defensive captain Deatrich Wise, who was one of the many jumping up and down in celebration. “I think it was almost like a movie script in a sense. I think out of all the football movies, Rudy, Any Given Sunday, and Remember the Titans, this beats it. The way it ended was phenomenal.”
Jones, a third-round pick out of Houston, briefly left the game with an ankle injury, with Myles Bryant fielding a few punts, but was back out there for Braden Mann’s 10th boot of the game.
Jones said when the ball went up, he was mostly focused on ball security “because the wind was going crazy out there.”
He also voiced some surprise that the Jets didn’t just kick it out of bounds, and avoid a return altogether. Instead, Mann kicked it to Jones right in the middle of the field.
“My main thing is I thought they were going to let him try to kick it out of bounds due to the time on the clock,” Jones said. “But the first thing was trying to make sure that I followed my teammates’ blocks. Then I saw the punter and I was like, if I make him miss, then I should be able to go the distance.”
He sure did; he put on the afterburners and blew by all the Jets after making his cut, getting great blocks from Brenden Schooler, Raleigh Webb and Mack Wilson, among others, to make it happen.
After the game, Jets coach Robert Saleh wasn’t specifically asked if he considered having Mann make sure there wasn’t a return, but gave the Patriots credit for their special teams prowess.
“They have got one of the better units through time, and you make one mistake and they will make you pay,” he said, “and we made a mistake on a punt and we couldn’t get him down.”
Special teams captain Matthew Slater wasn’t surprised to see Jones make that kind of play to win the game.
“His god-given ability has been in evidence since Day 1. And I think now, our group realizes if we block for this guy, he’s going to have a chance to make plays,” said Slater. “We go out there, he has a lot of confidence in us, we have a lot of confidence in him. I think it makes for a good unit. And when we needed it most, we just trusted each other, we trusted the calls Cam (Achord) was making, and we made the play that we needed.”
Jonathan Jones, who was out on the punt unit, said he and Marcus made eye contact at one point on the ret…