EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—Rob Gronkowski caught his second touchdown pass from Tom Brady to give the New England Patriots a 23-9 lead through three quarters over the New York Jets in their AFC East showdown Sunday night.
With Buffalo losing earlier in the day, the winner will have sole possession of the top spot in the AFC East. All three teams entered Sunday at 5-3, with the Jets having won three in a row and the Patriots dropping their past two.
New York also is undefeated at home in four games.
Three Jets bobbled a muffed punt by Joe McNight to set up New England's short field goal for a 16-9 lead. Isaiah Trufant had two shots at recovering the loose ball and Donald Strickland one before Niko Koutouvides came up with it at the Jets 13 early in the third quarter.
Gronkowski appeared to catch his second TD pass of the night, but video replay showed he stepped out of bounds first. Stephen Gostkowski booted his third field goal of the game, from 27 yards.
Gronkowski got that second TD, though, a few minutes later after linebacker Rob Ninkovich returned a twice-tipped interception 18 yards. Mark Sanchez's throw went off the hands of running back Shonn Greene, then was deflected by linebacker Jerod Mayo to Ninkovich.
New England went to the no-huddle offense and Brady found Gronkowski over the middle from 5 yards on third down to finish off the drive.
Brady's earlier touchdown pass to Gronkowski gave the Patriots a 13-9 halftime lead.
The second quarter was filled with mistakes by both offenses, along with some pretty staunch defense, something the Patriots have not been known for this season. They had three sacks in the half, two by veteran Andre Carter.
But the Jets got points out of one of their rare pressures on Brady. Linebacker Jamaal Westerman got to Brady in the end zone and the reigning league MVP threw the ball away left-handed. Brady was called for grounding and a safety.
New York took the free kick and moved 65 yards on seven plays, including a 21-yard run by LaDainian Tomlinson and the first catch of the season by Patrick Turner, good for 22 yards. Sanchez ran in from the 2 on a quarterback draw for a 9-6 lead, but he also called a timeout before the play, angering coach Rex Ryan.
Turner left at halftime with a kidney injury.
Back came the Patriots after New York opted not to try a pooch kickoff following a 15-yard penalty on New England's Vince Wilfork, and Nick Folk kicked the ball through the end zone. Brady hit five passes on an 80-yard drive, with Gronkowski getting open over the middle for the 18-yard score with 9 seconds left in the half.
New England lost top cornerback Devin McCourty midway in the second quarter after he collided with teammate Sterling Moore. He walked to the sideline appearing dazed and holding his right shoulder stiffly against his body. McCourty then went to the locker room.
Gostkowski kicked a pair of field goals and New England's maligned defense came up with two sacks by Carter for a 6-0 edge after one quarter.
Ignoring their ground-and-pound philosophy, the Jets went to the air on the first series, and completions of 16 and 27 yards to Santonio Holmes helped them get deep in New England territory. But they couldn't score from the 9 and Folk missed a 24-yard field goal to the left.
An ominous sign against the Patriots, and Brady went right to work. Completions of 12 yards to Aaron Hernandez, 21 to Gronkowski -- Brady loves those tight ends -- and 12 to Chad Ochocinco got them in field goal range. Gostkowski did what Folk couldn't, squeezing his 50-yarder just over the crossbar for a 3-0 lead.
Ochocinco's catch was his first in a month; his last was against the Jets on Oct. 9 in a Patriots victory.
Sanchez overthrew a wide-open Dustin Keller on the next Jets possession, then was sacked by Carter, forcing a punt and quieting the crowd. The fans were nearly silent when Ochocinco broke free behind star cornerback Darrelle Revis -- the Jets appeared confused in their alignment -- and gained 53 yards on a throw from Brady.
Again, the Patriots stalled and Gostkowski made it 6-0 with a 36-yarder.
Carter got his second sack on the final play of the first period.
For star power, the Patriots went with Jon Bon Jovi as the team's guest, while the Jets welcomed Donald Trump.