5 takeaways from the Patriots’ 24-17 win over the Jets

New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis puts a move on Jets defenders.
New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis puts a move on Jets defenders. –AP

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COMMENTARY

Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 24-17 win over the Jets, which moves New England back into sole possession of first place in the AFC East…

AN INEXCUSABLE START

All’s well that ends well, Patriots fans could argue, but two Rob Gronkowski touchdowns and a pleasing final result doesn’t excuse the first-quarter failures that put New England in a hole before Brady’s Bunch even had a chance to take the field.

Given the circumstances, it just shouldn’t have happened. While not an official bye week, having last played two Thursdays ago gave the Pats a full 10 days to prepare for a division foe. The Jets and their 38-year-old journeyman quarterback came in as one of the NFL’s weakest attacks. And even worse than that in the early going of games, having scored just seven first-quarter points over the season’s first five games.

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So when the Patriots pinned their hosts at the 12-yard line on the opening kickoff, they put themselves in prime position to take the upper hand. Their position looked even better when New York, football’s ninth-worst team on third down, was still at their 12 after a couple of misfires. But the Jets got the yards they needed. The next set of downs, they converted third and eight. Then third and six. Then third and one, the last being a touchdown that capped an 88-yard march.

After Mike Gillislee fumbled, the Jets put together a 78-yard possession – to go up 14-0 – and the Patriots were in an uphill fight they could never have expected to be waging. As much blame as the players have taken for the breakdowns that have resulted in New England’s underwhelming start to the campaign, when those busted coverages and viewed in conjunction with a start like Sunday’s it’s impossible not to shift a bigger portion of the blame upon the coaching staff.

With extra time to prepare, against a familiar opponent, in a road test against a team that had won three straight to tie New England atop the AFC East, the Patriots came out underprepared, seemingly strategically as well as emotionally, and never more so than on the most critical downs. Even if the adjustments came eventually, that’s not a good sign moving forward.

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THE BUTLER DOES IT … AGAIN

Early in the second quarter Malcolm Butler was beaten for a touchdown by Jeremy Kerley, the modern-day Jerricho Cotchery in terms of otherwise-average Jets receivers who always seem to show up against the Patriots – though Butler made up for it in a way that made him as responsible for this victory as anyone.

With New York pushing for points late in the first half, and on the cusp of field goal range, Butler exploded in front of the targeted receiver and snagged his second interception of the season. That gave the Pats possession with 35 seconds before the half, at their own 37, and keyed by a long completion to Brandin Cooks Brady worked his magic and New England made it to intermission in a tied game.

Eventually the Pats opened up a 10-point lead, and with the Jets threatening to cut into it midway through the fourth quarter, Butler showed up again.  This time he was trailing the play from the back side, and just before tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was about to fall into the end zone, Butler joined Duron Harmon in making the tackle and knocked the ball free. Seferian-Jenkins didn’t regain possession until his body was out of bounds, so instead of a touchdown for the Jets, replay officials ruled it a touchback, and the Patriots got the ball at the 20 yard line going the other way. Given the time and circumstances, that was the type of play that could later be looked at as a season-turning strip.

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Butler has had some difficulties in coverage at time this year. But on a day when the Pats were without their big-dollar corner, Stephon Gilmore (concussion), Butler offered another reminder that even when his coverage might wane, his effort seemingly never does. He’s tough, he’s resilient, he’s physical, he’s fearless – and he’s a player the Patriots should prioritize retaining.

DEFENSIVE FRONT PLAYED STOUT

Twice on Sunday Kony Ealy got his big mitts on Brady tosses, taunting the Patriots with glimpses of the player the Patriots probably thought they were acquiring when moving down eight spots in order to pry him from the Panthers before last spring’s draft. But any envy from New England was offset by the way the remaining members of the Pats’ defensive front played at MetLife Stadium.

Led by Kyle Van Noy – who had a team-high seven tackles, two sacks, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits – the Pats were in the Jets’ backfield regularly. As a team they wound up with four sacks, seven tackles for loss, and hit Josh McCown 10 times. Malcom Brown was a force in the middle, picking up a sack, and even the maligned Alan Branch made an impact pushing the pocket from the middle.

The line was particularly good in short yardage situations, but overall the Jets gained only 74 yards despite attempting 24 rushes – and taking McCown’s scrambles out of the equation the Jets gained just 2.4 yards per haul. New York entered with an above-average  ground game, and averaging 131 yards rushing over the past three weeks, but New England forced the game onto the right shoulder of an under-pressure McCown, and his two big mistakes proved mighty costly.

LEWIS LOOKS GOOD IN GILLISLEE’S PLACE

He made it back onto the field eventually, avoiding the full Stevan Ridley, but Gillislee sat out the final 19 plays of the first half after he fumbled. Perhaps worse for his longer-term prospects for playing time, though, might’ve been the job Dion Lewis did both before and after Gillislee was apparently benched.

Lewis finished with 11 carries for 52 yards and a score, barely outproducing Gillislee’s 10 for 44, but it marked the fourth consecutive week in which the diminutive threat has seen an increase in his workload. If the Patriots have been slowly working the oft-injured Lewis back into prominence, Sunday’s events should instill even further confidence that Lewis is ready for more responsibility.

With Rex Burkhead nearing a return as soon as next week, and with James White continuing to be one of Brady’s preferred back in the passing game, it will be interesting to see how Gillislee is deployed in the weeks to come.

BETTER DISCIPLINE WITH PENALTIES

A week after a 12-penalty performance came on the heels of a contest where they put themselves in precarious spots with a series of ill-timed infractions, the Patriots didn’t commit their first penalty until the early minutes of the third quarter.

Even then, their first foul came on a pick play, where the issue was more with pushing the boundaries of the rulebook more than the blatant lack of discipline that was especially apparent in Week 5’s win over Tampa Bay. In the end, the Patriots and Jets were each whistled for six enforced penalties, but only two of New England’s fouls resulted in first downs for the enemy (versus four such penalties from the Jets).

It wasn’t flawless, and some of the non-calls on both sides in pass coverage suggest that the officials were more on the side of letting things go than referee crews have been in other weeks. But at least the Patriots cleaned up some of the sillier stuff.