Now, that was a game that should have been saved for Thursday night.
Count it as a victory for the New England Patriots, a 22-17 decision over the New York Jets that was ultimately better suited for the NFL’s weekly black hole later in the week than it was a Sunday afternoon. After all, there was a reason why NBC surrendered the Sunday night rights to this game in favor of Chiefs-Broncos.
Even Tom Brady in prime time couldn’t have saved this mess.
Brady wasn’t great against the Jets, completing 30 of his 50 passes on an ailing knee for 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns to rookie Malcolm Mitchell. He lost Rob Gronkowski to a back injury in the first half, and found himself pummeled to the ground more often than not in the early stages, when the Jets’ defensive front manhandled the New England offensive line as if it were a collection of beaded curtains.
But then, the fourth quarter came, needing Brady to be Brady in the clutch in order to avoid a loss in the Meadowlands. In the final five minutes, he completed six of nine passes, culminating with a Mitchell touchdown for the win.
Terrible game. Great drive.
“There were a lot of plays we made there in the last seven minutes of the game,” Brady said. “It wasn’t our best effort, but that’s what happens in these games sometimes.”
The 50th comeback drive of Brady’s career delivered the quarterback his 200th win in the NFL, a record he now shares with Peyton Manning, and one he can break next weekend against the Los Angeles Rams in Foxborough.
Two hundred wins. Pretty impressive feat, no?
“Hell, I’m just happy to be 9-2,” tight end and former Chicago Bear Marcellus Bennett said. “I’ve never won nine games”
Even head coach Bill Belichick was effusive in his praise for the man responsible for four of his six championship rings.
“The quarterback’s job is to win,” Belichick said. “He’s won a lot. That’s good. I’m glad he’s our quarterback.”
It was a mark that Brady also showed no interest in discussing afterwards, instead proclaiming that football is a team game, yada, yada. But what he accomplished following a week during which he missed practice twice because of his bum knee, was everything the Patriots needed. The man was clearly hurt, and being driven into the ground repeatedly probably didn’t help. But you know if the Patriots need him in the fourth quarter to deliver the dagger, more often than not they’ll get it from No. 12.
They got it on Sunday.
“It’s a tough team to prepare for,” Brady said. “There was a lot of time I wish I’d have spent on the practice field that I was spending getting treatment. I’d rather have more time to prepare mentally and on the practice field than do what happened, but that’s the way it goes. You’re not going to practice every Wednesday, Thursday Friday. You’d love to, but probably not the reality for most guys in the league.”
With 2:53 remaining and the Jets clinging to a 17-16 lead, Belichick elected to go for it on fourth and four from the Jets’ 37-yard-line, rather than give kicker Stephen Gostkowski the opportunity to put the Patriots up by two. Earlier in the game, Gostkowski missed his fourth field goal of the season, one more than he missed in all of 2015, and the panic that percolated early in the season about the kicker’s troubles might be full-blown to the point where the Patriots need to look at other options. Highest-paid kicker in the league or not, there’s an oncoming dread of what he might look like come playoff time.
Brady turned the fourth down into a dish off to James White, who fought for the first down. Just barely. That gave Brady a new set of downs to find Chris Hogan for a 25-yard pickup, then Mitchell for the game-winner.
In the absence of Gronkowski, Brady seems to have found a new outlet.
“He made a lot of great catches today,” Brady said. “I think Malcolm has really done a great job gaining everybody’s trust. Because he shows up every day, works his butt off, is so committed to the team. It means a lot to him, football matters. He’s come through in the clutch, so I’ll keep giving him opportunities.”
Brady said he’s glad the week was over, either hinting at his lack of preparation after missing two practices, or the fact that he can rest his knee for a few more days before leading up to Sunday’s game against the Rams.
“I think everybody is battling through different things,” Brady said. “You just do the best you can do. It’s a long season and every week starts fresh again. You know, I’m glad it’s over, and I’m glad we won.”
Did he ever consider sitting this game out and surrendering the start to Jimmy Garoppolo, particularly with five regular-season games remaining before the Patriots’ presumed place in the playoffs?
“Nope,” Brady said. “Nope. No.”
“I try to show up and just do my best. Like I said, I don’t think everyone is feeling great this time of year. You just do the best you can do. I’ll try to do the same this week.”
The best he could do allowed his team to escape the Meadowlands with a game the Patriots probably would have lost had Brady not been in there in the fourth quarter.
He wasn’t great. Except when it mattered.
“I’m happy the week’s over,” Brady said. “That was a long week.”
It was also one that ended with an arduous game, one unfit for prime time.
But with a quarterback who owns the spotlight no matter what the time of day.