Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 27-13 win over the Jets, which may not have been the most impressive of victories but nevertheless marked a step forward for New England in a number of areas…
A good day for Brady
Tom Brady deserved some of the doubts that trailed him into the bye week. He’d failed to post a passer rating over 100 in either of his three previous games, and in that trio of contests he’d totaled just a single touchdown pass. He’d looked inaccurate and uncomfortable against the Titans, fueling the fire of the legion itching to decree his downfall. And adding to the uncertainty late last week were the emergence of a knee injury and an illness that kept him out of Friday’s practice.
But Brady responded Sunday. As good as the Patriots’ ground game was over the second half, when it surpassed 200 yards rushing in a game for the first time in four years, and keyed New England’s two touchdown drives, Brady was as in command from start to finish as he has been all season.
That’s supported by the numbers, which show Brady finishing 20-of-31 for 283 yards, two scores, and a fourth straight game without an interception. He wasn’t sacked after being dropped three times against the Titans, and seven times over the previous three games. He averaged 9.1 yards per attempt, which made it his most efficient game of the season outside of the night he and his bunch hung 43 points on the Chiefs. And his rating of 115.4 was his best in a regular-season game in more than a calendar year (since he posted a 132 in Mexico City on Nov. 19, 2017).
The quarterback was moving well within the pocket. He was standing in when he knew a hit was coming. He was stepping into his throws. He was delivering the ball with some zip. He was accurate. And he was spreading the ball around – like he does when he’s at his best. He connected with eight different receivers, and targeted each of them at least twice. Rob Gronkowski was thrown to a team-high seven times, but Julian Edelman, Josh Gordon, and James White were each the intended receiver on five throws. Gordon, in fact, connected on all five of his targets after Brady missed him seven times in Nashville. And four Patriots, including the long-lost Chris Hogan, had 47 yards or more.
Give Brady credit, too, for orchestrating the rushing attack that racked up 149 yards after intermission. The Patriots had passed for 180 yards before halftime, but rather than force it through the air, Brady and Josh McDaniels remained balanced. Once again, there were some issues with finishing – the Pats went 1-for-3 in the red zone, 5-for-12 on third down and had just 27 points to show for 498 yards of offense – but Brady looked like an elite quarterback again. The offensive rhythm returned. And, no less, against a team that entered as the NFL’s best at limiting the length of opponents’ possessions.
Pretty good… With all the pieces in place
Two weeks after looking impotent against the Titans, the Patriots put together 10 plays of 20-plus yards en route to 498 yards of offense that was balanced with 215 on the ground, and 283 through the air. And of those 10 biggest gains, four were runs while six were passes – and half a dozen different players contributed.
Based on that, it should be no surprise that the Patriots offense was as healthy Sunday as it has been in quite some time, with tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Sony Michel, and offensive guard Shaq Mason all back on the field, and all contributing significantly to an encouraging performance.
Gronkowski made the biggest mark early, when he reminded the Jets – and the league – that he and Brady are still plenty capable of making the enemy pay for making a mistake. On a third and 2 play late in the first quarter, the Patriots not only failed to convert, but also committed a holding penalty. Rather than leave New England with a makeable field goal, New York opted to push the Pats back 10 yards, even though it gave them another crack on third down.
With that extra chance, the Patriots sent Gronkowski up the seam. He burned past the initial layer of coverage, and Brady laid a throw out over the goal line. Gronkowski was drilled just as the ball got to him, but he took the hit and still managed to squeeze the pigskin, crashing down in the end zone with a 36-yard touchdown catch. His second Gronk Spike of the season got his team on the board – and gave Pats fans reason to feel good about where the tight end’s health is at after a month on the sideline.
Gronkowski finished with three grabs for 56 yards, but he also contributed to the blocking that paved the way to New England’s best running day of the season, joining Mason and Michel in that effort. With Mason back at left guard, Trent Brown at left tackle after some issues in the Tennessee game, and Marcus Cannon at right tackle, New England’s starting offensive line was finally back intact. And with Michel in the backfield, they were equipped to make the most of it.
The rookie racked up 133 yards on 21 carries, good for a 6.3 per-carry average and his third 100-yard game of the season. He looks to be fully recovered from a knee injury that cost him a couple weeks, and he also bounced back from a mid-game injury where he got twisted at the bottom of a pile near the goal line. He showed good vision on a few runs, good toughness on others, and a nose for the stripe on his 1-yard touchdown surge.
When Michel is on the field, the Patriots are a better team. And when they have all of their weapons at Brady’s disposal, it continues to look like the Patriots’ offense is far from the problem.
Too many penalties
His announcements lack the length and depth that became a signature of his father, Ed – but referee Shawn Hochuli certainly makes sure he gets his share of airtime over the course of whatever game he’s officiating. In his first year as its white-hatted leader, Hochuli’s crew has called more penalties than any other group, and Sunday its affinity for flags cost the Patriots in a number of pivotal spots.
The Patriots had six penalties in the first 16 minutes, and had tied their season-high before the six-minute mark of the second quarter. One holding call negated a 25-yard gain by Michel, then later in the same series a couple of infractions took a 13-yard run away from James White. A possession later, Cordarelle Patterson didn’t get set properly and 15 more yards were swiped from Michel.
Some of the 11 penalties for 105 yards were warranted, but most of them trended more toward the fringe between allowable and illegal, and it’s not as though the Jets were unscathed. New York was whistled for eight fouls of their own, which speaks to the nature of the way the tilt was officiated, and may make the volume of penalties more tolerable for Belichick.
The Pats may not have adjusted quickly enough to the tendency of the referees, but for the most part their penalties did not appear to be the result of laziness, sloppiness, or stupidity. They seemed more to be a result of trying to push the boundaries, and not fully recognizing where the boundaries were on this particular day. That’s something the coach might be able to live with.
An improvement on the road
There were too many penalties, and it didn’t pay dividends on a scoreboard that showed things tied after the first quarter, then again after the first half, but the levels of preparedness and energy appeared to be better Sunday than they’ve been in some other road contests this season.
The Patriots made enough mistakes, and the Jets played just well enough that New England wasn’t able to shake New York early – though this trip wasn’t nearly as bad as those to the Jaguars, Lions, and Titans, all of whom were all able to seize on the Pats’ sleepiness to surge ahead at the start. The Patriots did fall behind, but this time they came right back with a score of their own, and moved the ball consistently with their initial possessions.
Call it a small step forward in an aspect that has in the past been telling of the more flawed clubs of the Brady-Belichick era, and an aspect that they’ll need to improve moving forward if they’re to make this the season they believe it can be. Three of New England’s five remaining regular-season games are in Foxborough, but the slate still includes trips to Pittsburgh and Miami, both of which figure to be challenges. Then there’s the matter of the postseason, and the reality that the Pats are likely to need at least one (possibly two) road wins if they’re going to reach the Super Bowl.
Remember, the Patriots’ last road playoff win came in January of 2007. This team still hasn’t exactly shown itself capable of being the team that could snap that skid – but Sunday at least marked movement in the right direction.
The defense is decent
Journeyman Josh McCown started the day 10-of-12, topping 100 yards before the end of the first quarter, and converting a third-down try with a touchdown toss to Jermaine Kearse in that period. He finished the first half toe-to-toe with Brady, going 15-for-22 and totaling 179 yards passing before the break.
His last completion of the first half was a connection that put his team in field goal range just before the buzzer – the sort of surrender that could be a killer for the Patriots in a closer, or higher-stakes game. New England’s defense wasn’t great, once again, against a below-average passer. But by and large the Pats’ defense was decent.
After halftime, they adjusted and held McCown to 11 completions on 23 attempts for 97 yards. The Jets rushed for just 74 yards on the game, and 25 of that was on three McCown scrambles. And maybe most impressive for a Pats defense that has struggled to get off the field at times this season, the Jet’s longest possession of the day was 4 minutes and 34 seconds. Eight of New York’s 10 drives lasted no more than 3:32, with five ending in punts, one ending in loss of downs, and one capped by Stephon Gilmore’s interception.
Individually, Pat Chung made 13 tackles and was all over the field. Kyle Van Noy was excellent, as he’s been most of the year. Trey Flowers hit the quarterback four times, and the pressure as a whole improved as the game went on. Accordingly, the Pats didn’t allow a touchdown over the final three quarters, and yielded one touchdown or less for the third time this season.
All three of those games have come against the AFC East – and, as fortune would have it, three of New England’s five remaining games are within the division. More opportunities await to keep making progress.