EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For millions of people, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to go home and have fun with family and friends.
Steve Gregory won’t soon forget his 2012 holiday homecoming. The safety and New York native — Brooklyn-bred, schooled in Staten Island — had the game of his life in the Patriots’ 49-19 victory over the Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Gregory stuffed the stat sheet, scoring a touchdown on a 32-yard fumble return, forcing a fumble, recovering another, and intercepting a pass thrown by Mark Sanchez. For someone proud of his Empire State roots, he came up roses on Thursday night in the Garden State.
“It was a good one for me today,” Gregory said.
His teammates noticed.
“He made some big plays,” fellow safety Devin McCourty said. “That’s a dream game. I told him I just want a turkey leg.”
Gregory was honored with a postgame feast on the field, along with Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork. It was the Patriots’ defensive lineman who sensed a big game from Gregory was coming.
“You know what? Last week before we played the Colts, he had three interceptions in practice. So I said, ‘Man, he’s going to get three interceptions in a game, three turnovers in a game,’ ” Wilfork said. “It didn’t happen against Indianapolis. But he came out today and made some big plays for us.”
The Patriots knew all week they’d be without three key starters — tight end Rob Gronkowski, defensive end Chandler Jones, and guard Logan Mankins. Turns out they’d be missing starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, too.
Vollmer, who has been listed on every injury report this season with back and knee issues, missed his first game of the season, designated by the team as one of its seven inactive players in the Patriots’ 49-19 win over the Jets. Vollmer, who missed 10 games last year with injuries, was replaced by Marcus Cannon, who had appeared in the first 10 games, all in a reserve role.
Donald Thomas filled in for Mankins at left guard for the fourth time in five games.
In an expected move made more important because of Gronkowski’s absence, the Patriots welcomed back Aaron Hernandez. The 23-year-old tight end was active for the first time since Oct. 21, also against the Jets. He’d missed three straight games with a lingering ankle injury, which he suffered in the home opener, and finished with two catches for 36 yards. A touchdown catch was nullified when Hernandez was flagged for offensive pass interference.
Safety Patrick Chung returned as well, after missing four games with shoulder and hamstring injuries. He didn’t start — Gregory and McCourty earned the first snap — but Chung came in on the second play. He had one tackle for loss, part of his two-tackle night.
In addition to Gronkowski (forearm), Jones (ankle), Mankins (ankle), and Vollmer, the other inactives were defensive end Jake Bequette, cornerback Marquice Cole, and offensive lineman Markus Zusevics.
Dan Connolly made the start at right guard, after sitting out Sunday’s game with a back injury.
Before the game, Zusevics was added to the 53-man roster, with the team releasing receiver Greg Salas.
Part of the tradition
The victory was the 200th in Bill Belichick’s career. He’s the eighth coach in NFL history to reach that victory total, and is 200-107.
“I didn’t make a block, didn’t make a tackle, didn’t throw a pass, didn’t kick a ball,” Belichick said. “The players win them, but it’s an honor to coach the group of players who really go out there and make the plays to win those games.”
Thursday night marked the eighth Thanksgiving game Belichick has participated in since joining the NFL coaching ranks in 1975. He is now 5-3, including 3-1 as a head coach with the Patriots.
The Patriots have won 19 straight games in the second half of the season. Their last loss from the back half of the schedule came in the 2009 regular-season finale, 34-27 at Houston . . . Julian Edelman, who scored one second-quarter touchdown on a fumble return and another on a 56-yard reception, left the game in the third quarter after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from a Jets defender. He did not return . . . With his team playing nearby in prime time, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was caught by NBC cameras in the morning getting a front-row seat at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade . . . Gronkowski, Mankins, and linebacker Jerod Mayo were the leading vote-getters at their positions in fan balloting for the Pro Bowl .. . . With 111 points through the first 11 games, kicker Stephen Gostkowski was on pace for 161, which would be 5 points shy of the NFL record for a season, set by San Francisco’s David Akers last year. The Patriots’ record for points in a season is 155 by Gino Cappelletti in 1964 . . . Patriots players will be off until Monday, when they’ll return to Gillette Stadium and begin preparations for the Dec. 2 game against the Dolphis in Miami.