FOXBOROUGH — It seemed inconceivable that it would happen again, that the Patriots would have a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, this time at home and to the hated Jets, and give it up.
But it did happen.
And then it didn’t.
Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham sacked Mark Sanchez with 7:28 left in overtime, with Ninkovich stripping the quarterback and then falling on the loose ball, the turnover giving the Patriots a 29-26 win Sunday.
In a year in which their three losses have come by a combined 4 points, it was the first time the Patriots have won by such a small margin: their other victories this season have been by 21, 24, and 10 points.
Ninkovich credited Cunningham with getting to Sanchez, and knew as he came flying toward the quarterback that he had a chance to strip him of the ball.
“When he gets in trouble he tries to throw the ball away instead of take a sack,” Ninkovich said, the recovered ball sitting among his cleats and other equipment in his locker.
It was the fourth forced fumble in as many weeks for Ninkovich, who has overcome a bumpy first couple of weeks of the season as he adjusted to the switch from outside linebacker to defensive end.
Sunday was the first overtime game New England has played under the new rules — the first team to possess the ball in OT must score a touchdown or the game continues. The Patriots won the toss and Tom Brady led New England on a 12-play, 54-yard drive, getting the offense just close enough for Stephen Gostkowski to hit a 48-yard field goal that held up.
It was not lost on the players that they were able to pull out a close game.
“With the way some of these games have gone, it’s good to win a close one like this,” receiver Wes Welker said, brushing aside the notion that New England got away with one.
“It’s tough to win in the NFL. They’re all tough. It comes down to plays at the end, just like this one did. We’ve had some that didn’t go our way; luckily, this one did.”
Not surprisingly, Jets safety LaRon Landry, who led his team with 12 tackles, felt a bit differently.
“We blew it,” he said. “They didn’t do anything special at all. They didn’t create anything. We let them have it.”
This is one of those games that Patriots coach Bill Belichick, ever the perfectionist, loves: his team got the win, but there is clearly much work to be done.
“We just have to keep working harder to get better, to do things better and eliminate a few of the mistakes that we had,” Belichick said. “I’m proud of the team, I thought they played mentally and physically tough.”
A lost fumble on a kickoff return by Devin McCourty — who had provided the game’s most exciting play in the first quarter — gave the Jets the ball well inside Patriots territory with 2:01 to go in a tie game.
And while the New York offense actually lost yardage on the possession, it was still close enough for Nick Folk to drill a 43-yard field goal with 97 seconds to play, giving the Jets a 26-23 lead.
The Patriots answered, using the no-huddle offense to great effect — though they didn’t use it earlier in the game nearly as much given the success they had last time they were at home against Denver — and Gostkowski nailed his own 43-yard field goal to force overtime.
“My teammates saved my life today,” McCourty said. “A bad mistake in the fourth quarter and I just have to do a better job on holding the ball. This was a total team win and we just kept fighting. Things didn’t go our way the whole game, today we made enough plays when we needed to for the win.”
The Patriots began the fourth quarter with a 23-13 lead and saw the Jets — who came into the game with the 30th-ranked offense in the league — score 13 points in the quarter.
Sanchez, who had completed less than 47 percent of his passes in four of the Jets’ first six games, made good on 10 of 12 in the fourth quarter alone, good for 114 yards.
For the day, he was 28 of 41 for 328 yards, just the seventh 300-yard game in 53 career starts.
The Jets pulled to within 23-20 with 5½ minutes to play, prime time for the Patriots to switch into their four-minute offense and try to kill clock. The four-minute offense lasted all of 1:08.
“It was first and 10 and then we got a pass interference [on Brandon Lloyd], and then it’s first and 20 and then it’s a run and it’s third and 16,” Brady said. “So that’s not the way to play offensive football. I don’t think there’s going to be a high percentage playing that way. We can’t really put ourselves in that situation.
“We’ve all got to do a better job executing our plays. There’s no easy way out. It’s not like there’s a magic, special play you save for those situations. It’s about doing your job and doing a better job of it.”Continued...