FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It was a Sweet 17 celebration.
In an ugly game that featured 17 combined punts into 17 mph winds, the last was the biggest, when Braden Mann booted a line drive between the numbers and the hash marks and Marcus Jones returned the punt 84 yards for a controversial tie-breaking touchdown with five seconds remaining Sunday to lift the Patriots to a 10-3 victory against the Jets.
“The way it went down, it’s messed up,” special teams captain Justin Hardee said. “Special teams wants it on our back, and we failed. Put the blame on me. I feel like I have to be the one to not even let them get that far.”
The blame wouldn’t be the only thing on the hustling Hardee’s back. Mack Wilson Sr.’s hands also were between his numbers, which could have resulted in a penalty at the 16-yard line that would have taken the touchdown off the scoreboard. Should that have been an illegal block?
“Yes,” a dejected Hardee told The Post with urging from a teammate. “It was a block in the back. They [officials] said it was on the side.”
No tackler was within 15 yards as Jones made the catch. The first to converge was tight end Tyler Conklin, who said he is not a regular on the punt team but picked up extra responsibilities after the Jets traded Jacob Martin last month.
“The first person down has to stop the vertical [route] so he can’t get upfield,” Conklin said. “I had to try to maintain a little bit of my leverage but stop the vertical. Once I stop that, everything goes sideways, and he’s obviously a little faster than me.”
Conklin forced Jones to the sideline, but C.J. Uzomah, Ashytn Davis and C.J. Uzomah and Micheal Clemons were triangulated in blocks. Pinned against the sideline, Hardee was in a double team as Jones sped by. Long snapper Thomas Hennessey was late getting over from the middle of the field, Mann whiffed on a dive at Jones’ ankles just past the 50-yard line and only a penalty flag was going to save the Jets at that point.
“I either need to get it up in the air or out of bounds in that situation,” Mann said. “I just need a better punt in that situation.”
Jones, who set the NCAA record with nine career return touchdowns (three punts), is the first to return a punt for a touchdown in the NFL this season. Mann lined up on fourth-and-3 with 26 seconds remaining.
“I thought they were going to try to kick it out of bounds due to the time on the clock,” Jones said.
Hardee later downplayed the shove on his last-gasp effort to corral Jones. If the penalty was called, the Patriots would have gained possession around the 26-yard line, setting up a 44-yard field goal for Nick Folk, who already had two misses.
“Whether it was the side or the back, it wasn’t good enough,” Hardee said. “It wasn’t up to my standards. It wasn’t up to the Jets’ standards. … I’m heartbroken off it. All I can do is go back to the drawing board.”
Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley was on the field for a comparable loss, when Auburn beat undefeated Alabama on the “Kick Six” on Nov. 30, 2013. It was a 100-yard return of a missed field goal with no time remaining.
“I’ve felt this feeling before,” Mosley said.