FOXBOROUGH — Nobody was more relieved to see Stephen Gostkowski kick not one but two important field goals — one to tie, the other to win — than Devin McCourty, who had quite an up-and-down game on Sunday.
McCourty scored his first NFL touchdown, taking a kickoff back 104 yards after the Jets had taken a 7-0 lead on their opening possession. What took the Jets nearly five minutes to build was erased by McCourty in 12 seconds.
But he also fumbled a kickoff late in the game with the score tied at 23. McCourty was stripped of the ball inside the Patriots’ 20-yard line, the Jets recovering and subsequently taking a 3-point lead on a 43-yard field goal by Nick Folk.
McCourty was sent back out for the ensuing kickoff, and returned it to the 21. It started a drive that concluded with Gostkowski’s 43-yard field goal that forced overtime. A 48-yarder in the extra session provided the winning margin.
What was McCourty thinking about on the sideline, after his miscue put the team in a tough spot?
“Just sitting there hoping my teammates help me out,” McCourty said. “Once you get back out there, you just try to step back in, do your role, and not let another mistake happen.”
McCourty, typically a cornerback, was forced to play safety because of injuries to Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory. He was part of a secondary that continued to give up big plays.
“It’s tough to stop teams from making plays, period,” McCourty said. “When the ball’s in the air, [we need to] make some plays. We made some, but there’s always more that you want to make.”
Shane Vereen had his best game of the season, getting the start at running back and gaining 49 yards on eight carries. He averaged 6.1 yards per rush, ripping off a long of 16 yards, and gave the Patriots a nice, unexpected pop when he was in the backfield.
“I didn’t know until right before kickoff, to be honest with you,” Vereen said of his starting assignment. “We all have a role in the running back room, and I was just able to go out there and do it well for my team.”
Maybe next time
Wes Welker was targeted only eight times, not really getting the opportunity to match a league record or set a franchise one.
Welker finished with six receptions for 66 yards. He needed at least 10 catches to equal Jerry Rice’s NFL mark of 17 games with at least 10 catches. He’ll have a chance to tie that mark on Sunday in London against the Rams. What ended was his streak of consecutive 100-yard games. He came in with four, tied with Randy Moss (2007) for the Patriots’ record.
For just the third time in a Patriots career that started in 2005 — but the second time in four weeks — guard Logan Mankins found his name on the inactive list. Mankins has been nursing calf and hip injuries this season, and did not participate in Thursday’s practice. He was limited on Wednesday and Friday, and was listed as questionable on the injury report.
Mankins also missed the game at Buffalo Sept. 30.
“It just seems like it’s going to be a long year,” Mankins said during the week. “It’s only six weeks in and already nagging injuries, so we’ll see what happens.”
Donald Thomas started at left guard in place of Mankins.
“I’m no Logan Mankins by a long shot, so I work with what God has blessed me with and make the most of it,” said Thomas. “If you’re an offensive lineman and you’re not a starter, you have to be able to play two positions, at least. I felt like we were able to do that today, and luckily everyone held up that was able to go.”
Chung was not able to go, missing his first game of the season, out with a shoulder injury. He and Mankins were joined on the inactive list by running back Brandon Bolden (knee, injured a week ago at Seattle), Gregory, linebacker Tracy White, and defensive linemen Jake Bequette and Ron Brace.
That meant the Patriots had linebacker Dont’a Hightower and receiver/returner Julian Edelman back. Hightower had missed two straight games with a hamstring injury, and played well, credited with seven tackles, including a sack. Edelman hurt his hand late in the first half against Baltimore on Sept. 23, didn’t return to that game, then missed the next three. He caught a 2-yard pass from Tom Brady late in the first quarter, fielded a squib kick to end the first half, and caught a 5-yard pass on third and 2 in the third quarter.
Dan Connolly wasn’t placed on the inactive list, but he never took the field for warm-ups, so his availability — and his whereabouts — were unknown as kickoff approached. Connolly also wasn’t spotted when the team ran out of the inflatable bubble helmet before the game, but finally made it to the sideline, starting at right guard.
An announcement was made by the Patriots late in the first quarter that Connolly was suffering from an illness, and said his return would be questionable. He was replaced by Nick McDonald.
“Dan Connolly got sick this morning,” coach Bill Belichick said. “We were kind of hoping to have him back for the game. [It] didn’t clear up.”
Not so fast
The Jets, well aware of the Patriots’ preference to play fast when they have the ball, figured that a way to possibly slow them down was to reportedly remind the referees of the rules regarding no-huddle offenses.
If the team with the ball makes a substitution after a play is over, the defense is permitted and given time to also make a sub, something the Jets wanted to be able to do.
ESPN reported Sunday morning that the Jets had contacted the NFL regarding the Patriots’ frenetic offensive pace.
Last week, Jets coach Rex Ryan said, “Sometimes when they substitute, you’re supposed to be allowed to substitute with them. We’ll see about that, but they move at such a quick pace that you have to be alert, and if you have to sub, you have to make your substitution extremely quick.”
Lex Hilliard had a monster game against his former team.
Released by the Patriots Sept. 19 (he had one carry for 2 yards against the Cardinals), Hilliard signed with the Jets Oct. 2, and hadn’t done much during his time in Gotham.
Until Sunday. Hilliard had three rushes for 14 yards, caught a pass for 8 yards, and forced McCourty’s fumble.
Eager to please
Tim Tebow, whom Ryan had said might be employed at running back, had four carries for 12 yards in spot duty at quarterback. He did not attempt at pass. Said Tebow, “I just listen to what I am told and just try to do the best I can with the opportunities.” . . . It required overtime, but the Patriots finished with 381 offensive yards, the 16th consecutive game they’ve had at least 350. That equals the NFL record also held by the St. Louis Rams, who did it in 1999-2000. The Patriots had 333 at the end of four quarters . . . Rookie cornerback Alfonzo Dennard had his first NFL interception, picking off a Mark Sanchez pass at the Patriots’ 2-yard line . . . Donald Trump was on the sidelines during thewarm-ups chatting with Robert and Jonathan Kraft.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.