FOXBORO, Mass. — Matthew Slater has played in 241 games for the New England Patriots, postseason included. Only a certain quarterback who used to wear No. 12 has played more for the franchise.
Slater has been on teams that won the Super Bowl and others that failed to reach the playoffs. He’s been on both sides of lopsided blowouts and one-score nailbiters.
But he’s never experienced what happened Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
With the Patriots and New York Jets deadlocked at a field goal apiece, rookie cornerback Marcus Jones returned a Braden Mann punt 84 yards for a game-winning touchdown with five seconds remaining, giving New England a borderline-unprecedented 10-3 victory.
“That’s like the dream scenario for our special teams unit,” Slater, the Patriots’ longtime special teams captain, said in the locker room postgame. “I’ve never been a part of anything like that in my life. That was phenomenal.”
Few players have. According to Pro Football Reference, Sunday’s game was the first since 1994 and just the second since the AFL-NFL merger in which the only touchdown for either team came on a punt return. It was the first NFL game that featured a go-ahead punt-return touchdown in the final minute since DeSean Jackson’s famous “Miracle at the Meadowlands II” in 2010.
Jones, a third-round draft pick who’s quickly developed into one of the NFL’s most explosive return men, expected Mann to direct his punt out of bounds. The way New England’s offense was performing, that would have all but ensured the game would head to overtime. But the Jets punter booted the ball straight down the middle of the field, and Jones fielded it without a coverage player within 20 yards of him.
Following blocks from Brenden Schooler, Raleigh Webb, Anfernee Jennings, Jonathan Jones and Jabrill Peppers, the young corner outran tight end Tyler Conklin, found a seam and took off down the right sideline. He evaded a diving tackle attempt by Mann and got one final (and controversial) block by Mack Wilson as he crossed the goal line and sent the home crowd — which had been bored to death by three hours of ugly, plodding football — into a state of elation.
“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,” said Jones, whose parents were in attendance Sunday for the first time in his NFL career. “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.”
Jones entered Sunday ranked first among qualified NFL return men in kick-return average and second in punt-return average, according to NFL GSIS, emerging as a legitimate special teams weapon for New England after beginning the season as the backup in both roles. In the first Patriots-Jets matchup three weeks earlier, he ripped off a 32-yard punt return to set up a third-quarter field goal.
“I told him, I was like, ‘Bro, we’re going to get you one,’ ” Schooler told NESN.com after Sunday’s game. “‘We’re going to get you one. You’ve just got to hit a crease and we’ll hold up our guys and we’ll do what we have to. But we’re going to get you one.’ So after the game, we came in here and I told him, ‘We got you one today!’
“He’s awesome at setting up blocks. He makes it easy for us. Having a returner (like him) back there, it’s electrifying. At any moment, it can happen, and today it happened at the perfect moment. It was an awesome feeling.”
It was the first touchdown of Jones’ young pro career and the first punt-return score by any NFL player this season. But the end zone is a familiar place for the Houston product. He tied an NCAA record with nine punt/kick return touchdowns in college at Houston and Troy, including a 100-yard, last-second, game-winning kickoff return against SMU last October.
Schooler, another member of New England’s talented rookie class, said he was “losing his mind” as he watched Jones propel the Patriots to victory Sunday.
“I had to come back and cover that (final) kickoff,” he said, “and I’m so winded from just being so excited, going down there and celebrating with all the guys who were part of that play, Marcus who was doing his thing out there. One of the most electric returners coming out of college, and he’s proving himself right now. My head was just going wild.”
The Patriots’ sideline felt similarly.
“How the game ended, it was phenomenal,” said defensive end Deatrich Wise, who had a sack, a pass breakup and two tackles for loss in the win. “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’ dramatic score — which came after an ankle injury briefly sidelined him earlier in the fourth quarter — gave the Patriots what could prove to be a massively important victory. While they still must fix their offensive issues after totaling just two passing/rushing touchdowns over the last three games, they now sit at 6-4 on the season, just one game back of first place in the hotly contested AFC East entering a Thanksgiving night matchup with the Minnesota Vikings.
“It keeps us alive,” Slater said. “I don’t like putting too much emphasis on any one game, but it keeps us alive and gives us a chance to keep competing and fighting.”