The New England Patriots were undefeated in AFC East play last season, and that gave them a crucial six wins in what was a very easy division outside of the Patriots. However, it’s never easy to play a division game against teams that know you better than anyone, and it’s easy to get upset by an inferior team. Although the Pats didn’t get upset, they had one close call against each of their three AFC East rivals and one clear victory. The clear victory over the Jets was documented in our latest “Look Back” piece, but the Jets gave the Patriots a scare the first time these two teams took the field against each other last season a month earlier.
The Seattle Seahawks dealt the New England Patriots a tough blow on the road a week before, and the Pats were looking to make things right by taking it out on the circus of the division. But the Jets were anything but a laughingstock in this one, as Mark Sanchez led them to an incredible fourth quarter performance. They came into the fourth down 23-13, but Sanchez tossed a seven-yard touchdown pass to Dustin Keller and Nick folk knocked down two 43-yard field goals to give the Jets a 26-23 lead.
Now that’s scary. The Jets were leading 26-23 in Foxboro, and the Patriots had just 1:37 left to put some points on the board. Sanchez showed some clutch ability in giving the Jets a lead, but Tom Brady showed that he is the king of clutch drives by hitting up star tight end Rob Gronkowski for back-to-back 15 and 12-yard completions to set the Pats up at the 48. Then, Danny Woodhead took over and showed why he is one of the must clutch players in the league by reeling off a big 20-yard gain on his first reception, then putting Stephen Gostkowski into better field goal position by snagging a seven-yarder. Brady and the Patriots were incredible working out of the no-huddle in a clutch situation, and they were able to save their third timeout to give Gostkowski the chance to knock down the field goal with five seconds left.
Gostkowski was criticized for not performing in the clutch and missing late field goals, as some Pats fans were still upset over his miss against the Arizona Cardinals. I felt somewhat vindicated by standing by Gostkowski as a great kicker when he nailed the 43-yarder to tie it up at 26, but there was still work to be done.
The Patriots started off with the ball in overtime, and their drive was nearly killed off on third-and-seven with the ball at their own 44 after an incomplete pass to Aaron Hernandez, but a pass interference from Jets corner Kyle Wilson saved the Jets. Gostkowski had a second clutch field goal to attempt, and he delivered by also hitting a 48-yarder to give the Pats a 29-26 lead.
The Jets weren’t done, though, and they continued to scare the Patriots at home. Alfonzo Dennard committed a penalty of his own (holding) on third down to get the Jets going, and Sanchez hit up Jeremy Kerley for a 17-yard pass to get the Jets to their own 40. But that’s as far as the Jets would go, because Rob Ninkovich performed one of the most heroic plays of the Patriots season. He and Jermaine Cunningham teamed up for a 12-yard sack of Mark Sanchez, and Ninko (one of the best players in the league at forcing and recovering fumbles) pounced on the loose ball to give the Pats the win. Thus, the Pats won on a game-winning fumble.
Each week, I do a “What We Learned” post on Monday after the game, but I feel like we need to run through some stuff we “learned” from this game in context. So below are some bullet points on why this game was so significant.
1. We realized just how bad the Patriots pass defense was, and I think this is when the Pats realized they needed to get another cornerback. The Pats managed to make Mark Sanchez look good by allowing him to throw for 328 yards, 8.0 yard per attempt, and a 90.3 QB Rating. While those numbers are a bit inflated (his TQBR was below 50), Sanchez still looked a lot better than he should have. The Pats acquired Aqib Talib during the bye week following their blowout victory in London over the St. Louis Rams, but let’s just say that this too-close-for-comfort game against the Jets was the final straw. They realized that Kyle Arrington is a good slot corner, but he is terrible on the outside; Arrington had a terrible game against the Jets. It showed the Pats that they needed a true outside CB and someone who could lock down possession receivers, as they were unfairly playing Arrington out of position throughout the beginning of the year.
2. The fact that the Patriots were able to pull this game out and not completely blow it after the Jets near-comeback in the fourth quarter was a moral boost for this team. They really needed it after losing out at the end to the Seahawks, and this game against the Jets started a seven-game winning streak for the Patriots. This game taught the Patriots a real lesson, and that is to not discount any opponent. Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, and other veterans will tell you this all the time, but it seemed like younger players like Dennard and Stevan Ridley needed to have that lesson ingrained into their minds.
3. Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, and Aaron Hernandez all did a solid job moving the chains, and they rose up to help Brady move the ball down the field in important situations. Gronk caught six passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns, and that’s the kind of dependability, solid production, and playmaking ability at the TE position that the Pats were making. He was their best playmaker last season, and the Pats lost a lot of schematic advantages when he went down.
4. We didn’t learn this, but if you watch this game again closely, you’ll once again be amazed at just how good the Patriots starting linebackers are. Dont’a Hightower looks like a solid LB for a long-time, Brandon Spikes is a true difference-maker on defense, and Jerod Mayo is indeed one of the best linebackers in the league right now. If you still think he is overrated, then you probably didn’t watch him as closely as you think you did this past season. He improved greatly in pass coverage (Hightower and especially Spikes still have some work to do in that regard, though) and looked lively against the run.
This “Look Back” series is driven by reader suggestions, and this piece was suggested to us by Musket Fire staff writer Cyrus Geller, who told me that this game was an extremely important one for the Patriots.
Past “Look Back” pieces
Patriots score 21 points in 52 seconds to help destroy the Jets.
The Arizona Cardinals upset the Patriots in Week 2.
You can follow Joe Soriano on Twitter @SorianoJoe.
Tags: Aaron Hernandez Alfonzo Dennard Aqib Talib Brandon Spikes Danny Woodhead Dont'a Hightower Dustin Keller Jeremy Kerley Jermaine Cunningham Jerod Mayo Kyle Arrington Mark Sanchez New England Patriots New York Jets Nick Folk Rob Gronkowski Rob Ninkovich Stephen Gostkowski Tom Brady Wes Welker