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Patriots notebook

Numbers not always true story

Near bottom of NFL ranks, big-play defense stuffs Jets

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / December 7, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — The statistics aren’t pretty: last in the NFL in pass defense, second-to-last in overall defense, last in first downs allowed, last in third-down efficiency.

Those were the Patriots’ rankings entering last night’s game, and the defense proved that statistics can be misleading.

The young unit pulled in three interceptions against Mark Sanchez — all of which the New England offense turned into touchdowns — and held the quarterback to 164 yards on 17-of-33 passing while also limiting the Jets to 3-of-12 efficiency on third down in a 45-3 victory.

“The only thing that matters is getting wins and getting takeaways, and getting the ball for our offense,’’ James Sanders said. “We played 60 minutes for the first time, and you saw what happened.’’

New England now has 23 takeaways this season. Underscoring how big those have been: in their 10 wins, the Patriots are plus-19 in the turnover battle; in their two losses, they are minus-5.

The Patriots defense had a strong first half, and then really poured it on in the second.

Sanchez was intercepted on three consecutive possessions, leading to defenders “flying’’ all over the field like jets, arms spread and smiles wide, imitating New York receiver Santonio Holmes’s signature touchdown celebration.

Despite the numbers that project to be the worst of any Bill Belichick defense in New England, the unit has come up big in key spots. A Week 3 victory over the Bills was salted away with a Brandon Meriweather interception. Against the Colts in Week 11, Sanders made a late pick to seal the win. And in Detroit on Thanksgiving, Devin McCourty’s third-quarter pick turned the tide.

Speaking of the unflattering statistical slant, McCourty said, “I know that’s how we feel, but we can’t control how the media feels. We don’t think it matters.’’

New England did allow 152 rushing yards, but they were largely inconsequential.

“This is my first time playing them this year [he was serving a suspension during the Week 2 matchup], and from what I saw, they did a hell of a job playing defense,’’ Holmes said.

Good hands team Randy Moss has to be kicking himself, and former teammate Cris Carter, too. Without Moss, it was no problem for the Patriots’ receiving corps last night. Deion Branch, whom Carter called “just a guy’’ in a WEEI interview, had three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown. Wes Welker had seven receptions for 80 yards and a score.

Branch, who was covered by Antonio Cromartie, wasn’t just a guy in the first half. He was the man, catching three passes that all went for at least 19 yards, as the Patriots built a 24-3 lead. He put the Patriots up, 17-0, in the first quarter, when he caught a 25-yard touchdown pass on fourth and 3 from the Jets’ 25.

“Just a route that we work all the time against the blitz zero and we hit it,’’ said Branch of his TD.

Branch said he didn’t need any extra motivation from Carter’s comments.

“Nah, man, I’ve been doubted all my life, ever since I was a little kid,’’ said Branch. “Hearing it from Cris, that’s his opinion. Somebody else will probably say something tomorrow. I got to do what I can do to help provide and take care and provide for my family and I’m going to keep doing that.’’

Moving on up Aaron Hernandez broke the Patriots’ rookie record for receptions by a tight end when he caught a 1-yard pass for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Hernandez, who had three catches for 51 yards, has 39 to break the mark set by Greg Baty (37) in 1986.

It was a return to form for Hernandez, who had only two catches for 26 yards in the last two games, as Rob Gronkowski became the favored tight end in the offense. Hernandez has 513 yards receiving this year. Russ Francis has the team rookie record for receiving yards by a tight end with 636, in 1975.

They’re out There were no surprises among the Patriots inactives: wide receiver Taylor Price, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, offensive lineman Rich Ohrnberger, tackle Mark LeVoir, and defensive linemen Myron Pryor and Wright. The newest members of the Patriots also were inactive as running back Thomas Clayton and outside linebacker/defensive end Eric Moore were scratched. With Wilhite still battling a hip injury, the Patriots were left with three corners. Defensive lineman Brandon Deaderick returned to the lineup after being inactive against the Lions . . . Linebacker Pierre Woods, who was released by the Patriots this week, was claimed by the Bills off waivers. Woods played his first four seasons with the Patriots and had been on and off the roster since training camp.

They had it covered The Patriots took Santonio Holmes’s advice and didn’t match him with rookie corner Devin McCourty. No matter, McCourty made his presence felt. He grabbed an interception for the third consecutive game when he picked off a Mark Sanchez deep pass that was intended for Braylon Edwards at the New England 6 with 3:50 left in the third quarter. The interception was McCourty’s sixth and it set up a Tom Brady’s fourth touchdown pass. McCourty is closing in on the Patriots’ rookie record for interceptions of eight, set by Hall of Famer Mike Haynes in 1976.

McCourty gave some of the credit to secondary coach Josh Boyer.

“Coach Boyer always harps on the little things I do in practice, where I am in position to get turnovers,’’ said McCourty. “I get them in practice, and then I’m showing them in the game.’’

Missing you The Jets might have wished Danny Woodhead was on their side last night. New York let Woodhead go in September and he signed with the Patriots the day before they met the Jets at New Meadowlands Stadium. Since coming to Foxborough, he has solidified himself as a crucial part of the offense. Last night, Woodhead had the first 100-yard receiving game of his career.

He had four catches for 104 yards, becoming the first Patriots running back to do so since Kevin Faulk in 2003. On third-and-4 from the Patriots’ 38, Woodhead took a shovel pass 50 yards down the left sideline on the penultimate play of the third quarter. That was the longest reception by a Patriots’ running back since Corey Dillon had a 52-yard catch in Dec. 31, 2006.

“We won the game and anytime you win the game, that is the most important thing,’’ said Woodhead. “I am not too worried about who it’s against. But it was a big win.’’

Green-Ellis in the running BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a pair of touchdown runs, the Patriots’ first and final touchdowns, a 1-yarder in the first quarter and a 5-yarder in the fourth quarter. Green-Ellis, who had 18 carries for 72 yards, had 11 rushing touchdowns on the season. He is the first Patriot since Dillon in 2006 to rush for double digit touchdowns.

Butler did it Patriots corner Darius Butler got the start for the first time since he was pushed around by the Jets in Week 2, surrendering a touchdown to Edwards and being whistled for a pair of pass interference penalties late in the Patriots’ 28-14 loss Sept. 19. . That game ended badly for Butler, who has been fighting to get back his playing time. Butler was credited with one tackle.

Taylor returns Running back Fred Taylor had his first action since returning from turf toe. He entered in the final minutes and had four carries for 9 yards in his first action since Sept. 26 against the Bills . . . When the Patriots punted in the second quarter with 4:06 to go in the half, it was their first in nine possessions, not including kneeldowns against the Lions. In that span, the Patriots have scored eight touchdowns and one field goal . . . The newest member of the Red Sox, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, was in attendance. Christopher L. Gasper of the Globe staff contributed. Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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