Patriots alone in first place after defeat of Jets
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just when it seemed nothing was going their way, the Patriots of old made an appearance at MetLife Stadium Sunday night, taking sole possession of the AFC East with a surprising 37-16 road win over the New York Jets.
At the start of the day, New England, New York and Buffalo each had 5-3 records. But the Bills were bar-b-queued by the Cowboys in Dallas, and then the Jets were unable to do anything offensively against a patchwork defense that started thin and only got thinner as the game wore on.
And yet, the Patriots persevered, with Rob Ninkovich coming up with two second-half interceptions, the second of which he returned 12 yards for the touchdown that clinched the series sweep of New England's most heated rivals.
"We knew coming in here it was a big game," said Ninkovich. "The Jets are a very good team. We're excited."
The Patriots learned before the game that safety Patrick Chung would not play due to a foot injury suffered a week earlier, against the Giants, and undrafted rookie Sterling Moore would start alongside James Ihedigbo.
But the one thing that has plagued the defense for much of the season -- the pass rush -- was not a problem, as the defensive line took advantage of a Jets O-line that has had its share of issues this season. Add in the fact that Mark Sanchez just hasn't progressed as a quarterback in his third season, and the Patriots were able to effectively get pressure.
Tom Brady once again seemed off with his throws, but by the end of the night he was 26-for-39 for 329 yards and had three touchdowns and no interceptions.
And after a week in which Bill Belichick was questioned like never before by fans, he was able to leave the Meadowlands with a satisfying win.
Somehow, despite all of their issues, the Patriots went into halftime leading 13-9.
With the Patriots starting two undrafted rookies on defense --Moore at safety and Jeff Tarpinian at linebacker -- the Jets got first downs on their first two plays, a 16-yard pass from Sanchez to Santonio Holmes and an 11-yard pass to Plaxico Burress. A 27-yard pass to Holmes put the Jets in goal-to-go situation.
But again the short field worked to the Patriots' advantage and they were able to keep the Jets out of the end zone. Kicker Nick Folk missed a 24-yard chip shot wide left; he came into the night 12-for-13 on the season, with his only other miss coming from 50-plus yards.
The Pats had a scary moment during their first possession, as right guard Brian Waters went down after their second play, and trainers were looking at his left knee on the field and on the sideline. But Waters would return to the game on New England's second drive. Ryan Wendell filled in while Waters was out.
After the initially possession stalled at the Jets' 32, Stephen Gostkowski converted a 50-yard field goal, giving the Patriots the first points of the game.
Defensive end Andre Carter sacked Sanchez on third-and-8 on New York's second drive, forcing the first punt of the night.
Chad Ochocinco, whom many were predicting would have his breakout game with the Patriots after not recording a catch in the previous three games, had the play that set up their second field goal, a 53-yard catch-and-run that put New England in the red zone. They stalled again, and this time Gostkowski made his kick from 36 yards out.
New York got on the board with over 10 minutes gone in the second quarter -- on a safety.
The Pats were pinned inside their 10, and after an incomplete pass, center Dan Connolly's low snap was fallen on by Brady but was a five-yard loss for New England. On third-and-long from their own five, Jamaal Westerman beat right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and running back Danny Woodhead, taking down Brady.
Brady got rid of the ball but was flagged for intentional grounding with no eligible receivers in the area; the penalty meant the Jets got the two points for a safety and got the ball back.
The Jets turned the possession into their first touchdown of the night, a seven-play drive that ended with a two-yard quarterback draw from Sanchez for the score.
New England took the lead back with a brisk, 71-second drive that covered 80 yards. Brady looked to his hulking tight end, Rob Gronkowski, three times -- on first down, a 12-yard gain, a 25-yard catch, and the 18-yard touchdown on third and long.
"He's so big, he blocks so well, and he has great hands," Brady said of Gronkowski. "He does it all for our offense. we needed a big game from him tonight and we got it."
The 25-yard catch went to review after safety Jim Leonhard went low on Gronkowski, upending him. Gronkowski lost the ball and it was recovered by Darrelle Revis. But since it was inside two minutes left in the half, it was a booth review, and the call was overturned because the ground caused Gronkowski's fumble.
The touchdown came thanks to some heads up play by the Patriots; the third down snap was a free play, as the Jets had been flagged for offsides. But Brady zipped the ball to Gronkowski, who made a nice catch in the middle of the end zone.
The Patriots now stand alone at the top of the AFC East at 6-3. They host the Kansas City Chiefs Monday night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Meanwhile, the Jets will play on short rest Thursday night in Denver.