You wouldn’t know that the Patriots had won Sunday, judging by the mood and comments from the team. The Patriots won, 23-16, over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but it wasn’t close to being pretty. Sunday seemed like a perfect day to get another win, avoid injuries, and coast into the playoffs. But we know that for Bill Belichick, looking past opponents is not his team’s modus operandi.
With that in mind, here are some takeaways from the game.
1) Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers — The Patriots lead the NFL with a +23 turnover differential. They’ve now gone 26 straight games forcing either an interception or a fumble. It seems, more and more, that if the Patriots do not win the turnover battle, or in a case like Sunday’s game against the Jaguars get a timely turnover, the team’s chances of winning plummet dramatically. But despite the drama of Sunday’s game, including two first-quarter interceptions by Tom Brady that put the Patriots in a 13-3 hole, that really doesn’t bear out when looking back over the past two seasons. Dating to the beginning of the 2011 regular season, the Patriots have played in 17 games in which they have lost or were tied in the turnover battle. In those games, they’ve won 12. Coincidentally, they’ve played in 17 games in which they’ve won the turnover battle since that time, winning 14. While the drop-off in wins is real, as could be said about any team when they lose the turnover battle, there is a resiliency that has defined this Patriots team. One only has to look back at Brady’s comeback bid against the 49ers last week. So while perfection is the goal, there is unnecessary fretting about the Patriots giving the ball up. They’ve proven to have fight in them, even when they’re hurting themselves.
2) Stopping the big play on a big day — The defense changed significantly with the addition of Aqib Talib in the secondary. Kyle Arrington shifted to the nickel corner, Devin McCourty took up real estate at safety, Alfonzo Dennard occupied the right corner, and the Patriots’ secondary appeared to settle down. But those pesky chunk plays of 20 yards or more kept coming. Since Talib was inserted into the lineup against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, the Patriots have given up 21 plays of 20 yards or more in the air. On Sunday, Talib was hobbled by a hip injury and Dennard was out with a knee injury as the secondary reverted to its early season form with McCourty and Kyle Arrington at corner and Patrick Chung at safety. The result of which led to a big day for Chad Henne, who threw for 348 yards and a touchdown. But surprisingly for the first time all season, the Patriots held an opponent to only two passing plays of 20 yards or more, a 53-yard catch and run by Montell Owens and a 36-yard strike over the middle to Jordan Shipley. So despite letting the game go down to the wire, and allowing Henne to lead the Jaguars to the 12-yard line with time expiring, the Patriots secondary managed to not let themselves get beat by the big play. It was a small victory in a day when the statistics and the play didn’t necessarily matchup.
3) Trust has been earned? — Ridley’s fumble last week against the 49ers had many close observers of the Patriots wondering if he would be banished to the bench again. That simply wasn’t the case Sunday. He had 18 carries for 84 yards in a another Brady dominated game (41 pass attempts). It appears that Ridley has either gained Bill Belichick’s trust, or the coach recognizes that he can’t just sit a talent like No. 22 anymore. Ridley now has 1,105 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. As the team’s horse, he’s pivotal to the offense. However, the same can’t be said for Shane Vereen. He recorded no touches this week. Instead, backup Brandon Bolden had five carries for a meager 3 yards. It looks like some clout has been built up for Ridley while Vereen still has some work to do. And for once, there was no ailment on the injury report for Vereen to point to.
4) Taking a bite out of Jerry Rice — Wes Welker, like Brady, is a constant in the offense. And also like Brady, Welker’s longevity in the Patriots offense has allowed him to leave quite a mark on the NFL’s record books. On Sunday, his 10-catch, 88-yard performance gave him the most 10 or more reception games in NFL history, breaking a tie with Jerry Rice. Welker now has 18 games in which he has caught 10 passes or more. (On Saturday, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson broke Rice’s record for total receiving yards in a season (1,848) with an 11-catch, 225-yard performance. He now has 1,892 yards.) It’s likely to be a record that won’t last long, with the Houston Texans’ Andre Johnson (17) and the Chicago Bears’ Brandon Marshall (16) not far behind. But it will be a record that Welker can point to when contract negotiations come up again. Certainly these are the kind of things that bolster Welker’s value to the Patriots and his impact on the league’s No. 1 offense.
5) Small bites — Brady now has thrown a touchdown in 47 straight games, tying Johnny Unitas. Only Drew Brees (54) has thrown a touchdown in more consecutive games … Belichick now has 10 seasons to his credit in which he has coached an 11-win team. That’s tied with Tom Landry. Only Don Shula is ahead of Belichick and Landry with 13. So if you didn’t already believe it, Belichick will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee … With one more first down against the Miami Dolphins next week, the Patriots will have the most first downs in NFL history for a regular season. The team has tied New Orleans’ 2011 record with 416 and has surpassed the franchise record of 399 set last season.