1. The most satisfying reminders of Tom Brady’s true greatness come not when everything is going well for the Patriots and all suspense of a football game’s outcome is removed early with their offense’s usual brutal efficiency. Those times are fun, but it’s when so much has gone wrong and little has gone according to plan and still the Patriots go home with a victory anyway that Brady is at his best.
2. Which brings us to Sunday, and the Patriots’ aggravating, rewarding 22-17 victory over the Jets. As it unfolded, it could not have been much more frustrating for the Patriots than it was; it seemed as if all of Roger Goodell’s ex-Jet toadies in the NFL offices had collaborated on the script. Brady was limping early in the game, and the Jets’ defense hit him often enough that you worried the limp might soon get worse. He also was off on his timing the entire game, looking like a quarterback who could have used a couple of extra days of practice this week.
3. Yet when they needed him to be at his best, he was as good as he can be, a place few others have ever reached. The Patriots trailed late in the fourth quarter, 17-16, and faced a fourth-and-4 at the Jets’ 37 with two minutes and 53 seconds left. If the Patriots don’t convert, we’d be left with the most recent reminder that Patriots-Jets matchups are almost always competitive, even if the gap in the standings between the teams suggests they shouldn’t be. Heck, had the Patriots lost, the Jets would have owned a two-game winning streak against them.
4. But the Patriots did not lose. Brady converted a swing pass to James White, who picked up four yards and an inch, tops. On the next play, Brady found Chris Hogan for 25 yards to the Jets’ 8. The 2-minute warning gave the Jets time to think about what was happening to them, but it was not enough time for them to devise a way to stop it. Brady to Malcolm Mitchell, eight yards, touchdown, and the Patriots had a lead that would soon become a victory. There are few quarterbacks in the history of football who can turn a frustrating day into a fulfilling one in a matter of three plays. Tom Brady did, again. There’s going to be a lot of griping about this game over the next few days.
5. Despite the satisfaction of the win — or how it was accomplished — there will be lingering frustrations. Rob Gronkowski left with what was said to be a back injury, though the genesis of the injury (or re-injury) was tough to detect. Early reports are that it was nothing serious, but any time Gronk is absent it is absolutely serious. The logic of taking two deep shots downfield in the first quarter with a tight end playing his first game after perforating a lung was not especially logical at all. And now the Patriots, approaching the December stretch run, must deal with physical issues with Gronk and Brady. Not ideal.
6. Star of the game for the Patriots beyond the quarterback? It was rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who finished with five catches for 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the winner. Mitchell could have had two more touchdowns — he narrowly missed catching Brady’s deep third-down pass in the end zone with a little more than seven minutes remaining and the Patriots down by 4. It’s clear he’s earned Brady’s trust, a rare feat for a rookie receiver. I’m now at the point, by the way, where I see No. 19 for the Patriots catch the ball and don’t think for a second, “Nice grab, LaFell.” Only took 11 weeks.
7. If I hadn’t seen Darrelle Revis trailing tackle of Julian Edelman on a crossing route with about five minutes left in the game, I’m not sure I would have known he’d played. In the past, that might been a good thing, suggesting the opposing QB was trying to avoid his island, so to speak. Now? It just seems like he was somewhere between invisible and irrelevant, at least until the end, when he was toast. It was Revis who was in coverage, so to speak, on Mitchell’s winning touchdown.
8. The Patriots do miss Chandler Jones, who was a prolific pass rusher even if he was invisible from time to time. Jonathan Cooper, the one veteran player they received in the deal, played as many games for the Patriots as you have. But we can’t call that deal a bad one. They turned the second-round pick received from the Cardinals in the deal into third- and fourth-rounders, which they used on starting guard Joe Thuney and Mitchell. It was nice to see Chris Long — one of the players who hasn’t quite replaced Jones, despite always giving a great effort — make the strip-sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick to end the Jets’ last possession.
9. LeGarrette Blount and the Jets’ Matt Forte have had similar seasons. Blount entered the game with five more rushing touchdowns and 70 more rushing yards this season, but Forte is a better pass receiver. You’ll recall the Patriots were interested in the Forte in the offseason, but he ended up signing with the Jets rather than making a scheduled visit to Foxborough. He’s a talented player, but I doubt the Patriots have any regrets given how good Blount has been.
10. Leonard Williams spent more time in the Patriots’ backfield Sunday than James Develin did. Correct me if I’m wrong: Williams is the one among the Jets’ collection of former first-round-pick defensive linemen who actually shows up for practice and meetings and stuff, right?
11. Chris Hogan throws a pretty good deep ball for a lacrosse player. Had no idea he was a lefty until he heaved up his second-quarter pass to Mitchell, who drew a pass interference penalty. The culprit on the pass interference was Darryl Roberts, a Patriots seventh-round pick in 2015. Brady clearly was aiming his laser pointer at Roberts early on. I suspect the Patriots had some first-hand knowledge of his weaknesses. Or perhaps the Patriots were just waiting for the right time to target Revis.
12. To his credit, Roberts did make a terrific play on the Patriots’ final play from scrimmage in the first half, getting his hand in at the last second to pry the ball away from Mitchell in what would have been a go-ahead touchdown.
13. Stephen Gostkowski had a chance to put the Patriots up 13-10 with two seconds left in the half, but hooked a 39-yarder, his fourth missed field goal of the season. He did drill two later field goals, but his struggles are concerning, absolutely. Every kick — including extra points — is now a tense adventure. But the Twitter general managers who raced to be the first to say the Patriots should release him — and there were many — are so painfully reactionary, and that’s as kindly as I can put it.
14. Part of it is that fans have been spoiled by having two extraordinarily reliable kickers over the past 21 years in Adam Vinatieri and Adam Vinatieri. Part of it is thinking it’s easy to go out and find a trustworthy kicker in the middle of a season. Part of it is underestimating how good Gostkowski has been for more than a decade, in part because they’re still mad Vinatieri ever left. And part of it is missing the context of how much the change in extra-point distance is messing with kickers all over the league.
15. Maybe Gostkowski will snap out of it, maybe he won’t, but the reactionary nonsense is more annoying than the missed kicks. And that’s coming from someone who is now as suspicious that he’ll miss a big one in the postseason as you are.
16. Malcolm Butler caused and collected the Patriots’ first turnover in the past four games, poking the football away from Jets receiver Robby Anderson after a catch and then recovering it himself in the first half. But that was the highlight of the Patriots’ best cornerback’s day. He struggled dealing with the Jets’ big receivers, whether it was Brandon Marshall over the middle (he had five catches in the first quarter alone) or Quincy Enunwa downfield (with Butler in coverage, he apparently got both, um, cheeks down in the end zone on his touchdown catch that put the Jets up 17-13 in the fourth quarter).
17. Todd Bowles’s sideline demeanor suggests he’s dead-set on winning a staring contest with Jim Caldwell.
18. The last time Bart Scott said anything interesting on camera he was yelling at Sal Paolantonio about whether or not he could wait.
19. Brady’s accidental power-dribble before his game-tying (10-10) second-quarter touchdown pass to Mitchell wasn’t just a remarkable tribute to his poise, though it certainly was that. It was an indirect but welcome flashback to his casual spike of the ball right before Vinatieri’s winning field goal in Super Bowl.
20. For the record, Nick Mangold was the Jets’ first-round pick in 2006. It only seems like he has been around since the Bill Parcells years.
21. I shouldn’t admit this, but I had to see him on the field Sunday to be reminded that C.J. Spiller is now with the Jets. The former Bills first-round pick had his moments against the Patriots through the years (105 rushing yards in the ’13 finale), but he’s become a journeyman, bouncing from the Saints to the Seahawks to the Jets since the end of last season. When he was with the Bills, I remember wishing the Patriots had a third-down back with Spiller’s skill-set. They’ve actually had a few, of course, and without spending a first-round pick.
22. I still cannot believe the Jets defense passed up a chance to detonate Brady when he looked like the world’s most disinterested pulling guard during LeGarrette Blount’s reverse-field run on the Patriots’ second possession of the game.