For years, the Patriots have insisted that it’s hard to win in the NFL. They’ve said it’s particularly tough to win on the road. They’ve constantly maintained that winning within the division is especially difficult.
That was all easy to believe on Sunday, when New England had its troubles with the cellar-dwelling Jets on a trip to MetLife Stadium. But, ultimately, the Pats pulled ahead with a touchdown in the final minutes, sealed things with the type of turnover that’s been sorely lacking. When it was over, they had ground out a 22-17 win that maintains their wiggle room within the East, keeps them atop the AFC, moved them to 6-0 on the road this season. All together, it meant that Tom Brady had tied the NFL record with his 200th career victory.
Here are five takeaways as the Patriots moved to 9-2:
A Big Day For The Defensive Line
While Ryan Fitzpatrick has had his share of success against the Patriots over the years, the biggest worry for the Patriots’ defense was the Jets’ running game. Both Matt Forte and Bilal Powell are productive backs, and New York began the day ranked among the NFL’s top 10 teams in both raw yardage (1,160) and yards per carry (4.5). Sunday, however, they looked nothing like that level of threat thanks to an excellent performance from the Patriots’ defensive line.
New England yielded just 64 yards on New York’s 24 rushing attempts (2.4 per try), and here’s a clue as to how good the Patriots were in the trenches: That effort required only three tackles from linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Rather, it was interior lineman Malcom Brown leading the way with seven tackles. Alan Branch, while appealing his pending suspension for marijuana, had six takedowns. They were outstanding at the line of scrimmage
It was defensive end Chris Long who sealed the victory by getting around the edge and stripping Ryan Fitzpatrick in the final two minutes. It was the Patriots’ lone sack of the day, though they did generate an intentional grounding call that helped stunt the Jets’ penultimate drive after the Pats closed to within 17-16. And that Brady wasn’t sacked once in a day he spent under siege suggests sack totals didn’t tell the story of QB pressure in this one. Long delivered his best play in the biggest moment — a moment that may not have even arrived had his linemates not done such a good job all day against the run.
The week began with an off-day after a long, late, cross-country flight. As it continued, Tom Brady missed a couple days of practice. Then there was a holiday in the middle of everything.
On Sunday, a less-than-ideal week of preparation cost the Patriots in the form of an ugly start that left them in a 10-point hole early.
New England entered Week 12 as the NFL’s most productive first-quarter offense, while New York opened as the league’s fifth-worst opening-period defense. Yet the Pats punted on each of their first three possessions while Brady and his protection both struggled. The quarterback wasn’t sharp, and neither was the operation as a whole, that being plainly evident at the end of the Pats’ first possession when they were gifted a first down due to an obviously bad spot, yet instead of hurrying to the line called a timeout with the play clock winding down. During that burned timeout, the missed call was overturned. (That timeout might’ve come in handy when the Pats were looking for points before halftime, when Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal try on second down.)
The Patriots eventually exited the first quarter down, 3-0, then allowed the NFL’s worst red-zone offense a touchdown on the first play of the second. Things improved from there on both sides of the ball, and New England controlled the game leading into halftime. But with a chance to prove its mental toughness despite the adversity brought on by their disjointed preparations, Sunday’s start was disappointing.
Butler, The Budding Leader
If leaders deliver big plays when they’re badly needed, Malcolm Butler’s emergence as a foundation piece in New England’s defense took another step forward Sunday.
With the Patriots in their longest turnover drought in more than 20 years, and in need of a spark, Butler delivered a powerful jab to the pigskin Jets’ receiver Robby Anderson left exposed while being tackled. Not only did the cornerback knock the ball out, he covered it up. The Pats’ first takeaway since Oct. 23 gave them the ball at midfield, and seven plays later they’d tied the game with a Brady to Malcolm Mitchell touchdown pass.
Butler had earlier been beaten for a score by Brandon Marshall. Later he was in coverage for a fourth-quarter touchdown throw to Quincy Enunwa. That one took a perfect pitch-and-catch, but spoke to the fact the Jets weren’t shy about throwing his way (as other teams have been). Butler wasn’t great in this game. But he’s a long, long way from being an undrafted rookie, or an upstart hero.
Gronk Goes Down … Leave Him There
The most concerning part of Rob Gronkowski leaving Sunday’s game was that the stated reason was an injury to his back. Not the hamstring that cost him time early in the year. Or the chest injury that saw him sit last week. The back. Even if it’s not related to the back injury that forced him to sit a full season in college, and has been addressed by surgeons since he turned pro, it’s a problem that Gronkowski walked off catchless with an ailment that wasn’t on the radar coming into the contest. It’s another indicator of his fragility. And another reason to be exceptionally cautious about when he returns to the field again.
Based on the way they’ve played the past month, the Patriots can take nothing for granted over the remainder of the regular season. They have plenty to prove this December. But they don’t need Gronk to prove anything. They need him healthy in January. That should be the sole focus for the team and their top tight end at this point.
There are benefits to resting Gronkowski that would go beyond just having a healthy body inside uniform No. 87 when it mattered most. It would prepare the team for how to cope if they were to lose Gronkowski mid-game in the playoffs. It would give Brady more time to develop a rapport with Mitchell, who is clearly building trust quickly. It would afford James Develin more reps in his role as the emergency tight end.
It would give the Patriots their best chance of Plan A and Plan B both presenting viable paths to the Super Bowl.
Mitchell’s Emergence Is Enormous
It fell incomplete in the corner of the end zone, leaking through the outstretched fingers of the diving receiver. But that the ball was there in the first place said much about the budding relationship between Brady and Malcolm Mitchell.
That throw came on third and six from the Jets’ 22, with the Patriots down four points midway through the fourth quarter. On that same play, Julian Edelman, Brady’s favorite target, was cutting over the middle. He was open. But, instead, the quarterback was looking at his rookie, and looking for a big play.
It speaks to the trust the two have developed over these past couple weeks, which have now seen Mitchell catch nine of 12 targets for 140 yards and three touchdowns after managing a meager three catches, six targets, and 20 yards in the first five games after Brady returned from suspension. Five of those grabs came Sunday, when Mitchell converted a big third down early, then scored twice late. The second was the game-winner, that coming against Hall of Famer Darrelle Revis with 1:56 left to go. Over the past two weeks, Mitchell has proven he can run routes effectively enough to get open in the short parts of the field as well as stretch it long.
Especially against nickel, dime, and over-the-hill corners, he appears capable of doing significant damage. And, just as importantly, Brady appears to recognize that.