This was the game the Patriots have not been winning, the game that has exposed them, the game that inspired Oakland Raiders linebacker Rolando McClain to call the Patriots a "finesse" team. This was the game the New York Jets played last January and the one the Patriots could not. Maybe, in retrospect, it was the game the Patriots simply would not.
There is still a great deal of football to be played in this 2011 NFL season, but let there be no doubt about what took place Sunday on the turf at Gillette Stadium. For the first time in a long time, the Patriots imposed their will on an opponent. New England lined up and smashed heads with the ground-and-pound Jets, emerging with a 30-21 victory that was part passing, part rushing, part defense and part special teams.
"We've played five games, we've gone up against five good teams," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters yesterday. "They all had their individual game plans for us and we've matched up against their players, and seen how our guys do against different schemes – man schemes, zone schemes, big receivers, small receivers, all the different matchups. I think we've learned a lot from all those different matchups and all the different things we've faced."
And what we are learning now, perhaps, is that the Patriots have recognized the errors of their ways and seem intent on correcting them.
The defense? Oh, there is still ample work to be done there, even after a performance in which the Patriots limited the Jets to a mere 255 yards, nearly half of the season average compiled by New England opponent during the first four weeks. Offensively speaking, the Jets are the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Mark Sanchez threw behind receivers and receivers dropped passes, contributing to a startling statistic in this age when any kind of physical defense is barely allowed.
The ground-and-pound Jets were, in fact, trick-or-treat, playing the majority of the day with dumbfounding ineptitude against a Patriots defense operating without Jerod Mayo and that had theretofore been rather poor.
Nonetheless, we can only judge a team on what we know, and here's what we know about the Patriots after Sunday's victory: in the last two weeks, they have seemed far more capable of winning games in which Tom Brady did not carry an inordinate amount of the burden. In the last two games, the Patriots have rushed for 335 yards, third most in the league and more than any team in the AFC, and they have done so against teams believed to be among the most physical in the conference. On Sunday, after getting steamrolled by the Patriots a week prior, the Oakland Raiders held the Houston Texas to a mere 70 yards rushing, a notable achievement given that Houston rammed Arian Foster down the throats of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4.
But lest anyone think this is solely about running the ball, it is not. It is about mindset. In recent years, particularly since the loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots have seemed more interested in winning shootouts than football games. Sometimes, it has seemed as if Paul Westhead has snatched the body of Belichick. Last January's loss to the Jets was one such instance, the Patriots seemingly fixated on trying to shred the Jets through the air when New England would have been far better served to run.
So what did the Patriots do this time? They took what the Jets gave them, content to play and ebb-and-flow, field-position and ball-control-type of game in which they never trailed. The Pats held their ground, kicked a few field goals, generally protected the football. They won the time-of-possession battle. Quite simply, they beat the Jets at their own game, something they were unwilling to do last January.
In that affair, the Pats were interested in playing only up-tempo. And when the Jets fell to the turf and slowed down the pace, the Patriots simply did not know what to do about it.
But this time? This time the Patriots played at a far more methodical pace, relying less on Tom Brady's brilliant mind and a little more on sheer, brute force. With seven minutes to go and holding a 27-21 lead, the Patriots put the game in the hands of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and not Tom Brady. In the span of 13 plays, Brady threw just once. Green-Ellis carried 11 times. The result was a field goal that gave the Patriots a 30-21 lead that took a whopping 6:12 off the clock and left the Jets with a nine-point deficit and a mere minute of game time.
Two years ago, remember, the Patriots faced a third-and-2 at their own 28-yard line while trying to protect a later lead at Indianapolis. Belichick put the ball in the hands of Brady, who threw a pair of incompletions that aided a Colts comeback and forever made "fourth-and-2" part of Patriots lexicon.
In retrospect, as much as we focused on Bill Belichick's decision to go for it at Indy, the greater issue may have been how the Patriots elected to go about it. Belichick trusted no one other than his quarterback at a critical time, which made the Patriots a simpler team to defend.
These Patriots, on the other hand, are starting to look far more capable of winning a different kind of football game, a skill that defined Belichick teams in the earliest part of the millennium. No matter the challenge, the Patriots could adapt to their opponent's style of play and be better at it, from blowing out the Steelers to shutting down the Colts. Now maybe the Pats are headed in that direction again, even with a defense that remains an area of great concern.
In the end, none of us knows where this season is headed yet.
But if the Patriots are to reclaim the kind of postseason success they once possessed, Sunday was indisputably a very good start.
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