EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - If it is possible, there was both a sense of urgency and a relaxed atmosphere for the Patriots over the last week. After two straight losses that featured poor execution, particularly on offense, the urgency was born. But according to receiver Deion Branch, the Patriots had fun in practice as they prepared for their AFC East showdown with the Jets. They stopped pressing.
And they left MetLife Stadium with a surprising 37-16 victory over New York, taking sole possession of first place in the East in the process.
At the start of the day, New England, New York, and Buffalo each were 5-3. But the Bills were barbecued by the Cowboys in Dallas, and then the Jets were unable to do anything offensively against a patchwork Patriots defense that started thin and got thinner as the game wore on.
And yet, they 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 season sweep of New England’s most heated rivals.
The Patriots were without safety Patrick Chung (foot) while undrafted rookie Sterling Moore started alongside James Ihedigbo.
But the one thing that has plagued the defense for much of the season - pass rush - was not a problem last night, as the defensive line took advantage of a Jets offensive front that has had its share of issues this season. Add in the fact that Mark Sanchez struggled with his decision-making and the Patriots were able to get pressure.
“It’s great,’’ Ihedigbo, the former Jet, said of the pass rush. “When you’re only covering for three or four seconds because you know guys are getting to the quarterback, it allows you to play more aggressive.’’
Sanchez, who hasn’t shown the development typical of most third-year starters, completed 20 of 39 passes for 306 yards and was sacked five times.
Tom Brady once again seemed off with his throws, but by the end of the night he was 26 for 39 for 329 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also was not sacked.
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.
“I’m proud of our team; we had a lot of players step up,’’ Belichick said. “We had a good week of practice, the preparation was good . . . The credit needs to go to the players.’’
“He’s still the best coach in football,’’ Branch said. “He’s a teacher.’’
One big positive for New England offensively was the absence of turnovers, something that has played a factor in their three losses.
With the Patriots starting two undrafted rookies on defense - Moore 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 Patriots had a scary moment on their first possession when right guard Brian Waters went down with an apparent left knee injury. But Waters returned on New England’s second drive.
After the initial possession stalled at the Jets’ 32, Stephen Gostkowski converted a 50-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
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 last night 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 to the New York 18. The offense stalled again and Gostkowski doubled the lead from 36 yards out.
New York got on the board with over 10 minutes gone in the second quarter on a safety.
The Patriots were pinned inside their 10, and after an incomplete pass, center Dan Connolly’s low snap was fallen on by Brady but forced a third and 15. Jamaal Westerman beat right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and running back Danny Woodhead, taking down Brady, who was flagged for intentional grounding and an automatic safety.
The Jets turned the ensuing possession into their first touchdown, a seven-play drive that ended with a 2-yard draw from Sanchez and a 9-6 lead.
New England went into halftime with a 13-9 lead thanks to a brisk 71-second drive that covered 80 yards. Brady looked to his hulking tight end, Rob Gronkowski, three times – capped by an 18-yard touchdown.
The 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 after a booth review the call was overturned because the ground caused the 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.
A muffed punt by Joe McKnight and Ninkovich’s first interception led to 10 third-quarter points though the Jets closed the gap to 23-16 on the first play of the fourth quarter. New England, however, responded immediately.
With Wes Welker blanketed for much of the night by Revis, Brady capped the drive with a touchdown to Branch.
Three plays later, the Patriots went up by three touchdowns with 7:45 to play when Ninkovich struck again - on second and 20 from the Jets 10 he picked off a short Sanchez pass intended for LaDainian Tomlinson (who had said before the game that the division was the Jets to claim) - and took it back for the score.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.