This was the game the Patriots wanted, the game they needed, the game that brought at least some stability to a season teetering on the edge. This was the game that restored at least some hope to New England's playoff chances in what looks to be a socialistic AFC. This was the game that proved, at least for now, that the Patriots are better than the New York Jets.
Facing a losing streak of three games or more for the first time since 2002, the Patriots gritted their teeth and flattened the Jets by a 37-16 score last night in the stunned silence of the Meadowlands. Trailing by a 9-6 score with 1:20 to go in the first half, the Patriots outscored the Jets by a whopping 31-7 margin the rest of the way, abruptly reversing the flow of a season and rivalry in one rather dramatic, fell swoop.
Does that mean New England's problems are gone now, that the worst is behind them? No, no, no. But it means the Patriots are not to be dismissed, at least not yet, at least not now.
"I’m proud of our team. We had a lot of players step up," Patriots coach Bill Belichick told reporters following a victory that was easily the Patriots' best of the season. "We had a good week of practice, the preparation was good.... The credit needs to go to the players."
Admittedly, as we have all acknowledged before during the historic union of Belichick and Tom Brady, the standards are different. In the big picture, regular seasons wins generally do not mean all that much. The Patriots at their peak won three titles in four years and came within a whisker of the only 19-0 season in NFL history, and so the priorities in Foxborough changed a long time ago. The question is not whether the Patriots can win a Super Bowl, but rather how many.
Or, more specifically, how many more.
For these Patriots, who now possess a 6-3 record and indisputable control of the AFC East, the questions still exist. New England played the Jets last night with a cast that included Jeff Tarpinian and Sterling Moore, such unknowns that even NBC could not properly introduce them. While Vince Wilfork was reminding us that he came from the U and Jerod Mayo reinforced that he came from Tennessee, Tarpinian and Moore strolled into the picture like a tandem of silent, unknown strangers, a pair of mug shots that might as well have been on the post office wall.
So what did that no-name Patriots defense do? They held the Jets to 16 points and sacked Sanchez five times, intercepting him twice. They played, if nothing else, well enough to support Brady and resurgent New England offense, which had been held scoreless in the second half of its two previous visits to the Meadowlands during the reign of Rex Ryan.
They played, in short, complementary football, at least to a sufficient point that allowed the Patriots to do what they have done as well as anyone over the last 11 seasons: win.
Now the negatives: These are the Jets we're talking about, not the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Giants, which is to say that, comparatively speaking, the Jets have certain limitations, most notably at quarterback. Where the Steelers and Giants were able to effectively throw first and run second against the oxymoronic Patriots pass defense, the Jets could do no such thing. (Not really.) Furthermore, the Jets do not have a true, bona fide pass rusher. That combination of factors alone makes the Jets a fairly good matchup for the Patriots, who have now won their last three regular season meetings against the Jets by scores of 45-3, 30-21, and 37-16.
Combined total: 112-40.
Of course that assessment excludes last January's 28-21 win by the Jets in the divisional playoffs, which brings us back to the theme that was at the core of the Patriots season from the very beginning. What will New England be come playoff time? What will the Patriots do? The Patriots went 14-2 last regular season only to be exposed come January, which left little room for gain during this regular season. If the Patriots had gone 14-2 again -- and they won't -- many of us (ahem) would have gone out of our way to point out that the Belichick-Brady era has never been measured by regular season wins.
It's what the Patriots do in January and February that has always mattered. And it's what matters now.
Whether this Patriots team is capable of doing any damage come January is highly open to debate, though last night's game gives us at least some assurance that there is a chance. This season, there has been no bigger or better win on the Patriots schedule. And given the relative creampuffs New England has lined up the rest of the way -- the Patriots' remaining opponents are a combined 21-43 -- there is not likely to be.
Because of that, this was likely the Patriots' last chance to prove to us that they at least possess grit, if not talent, most notably on the defensive side of the ball. And they clearly do. New York was a perfect 4-0 at home entering last night's game, and the Jets were playing perhaps their best football of the season. The Patriots, by contrast, were playing their worst. All signs pointed to a New York victory, particularly after a quarterback draw by Sanchez gave New York a 9-6 late in the first half.
So what did the Patriots do? They went down the field and scored a touchdown just before intermission, immediately wresting back the lead. In the process, New England tightened its loosening grip on the division, reminding us once again that the tandem of Belichick and Brady is not to be discounted.
At least not yet.
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