FOXBOROUGH — The Jets had more first downs, more offensive plays, more total yards, fewer punts, fewer penalties, no turnovers, and a nearly 22-minute advantage in time of possession during Thursday night’s game at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots? They had a secret weapon.
Danny Amendola, when not being almost completely overlooked by Tom Brady and the coaching staff, was still catching plenty this season. Instead of footballs, though, Amendola was catching nothing but criticism, mainly from fans wondering how a player who signed a $31 million contract before last season could be rendered so insignificant, so invisible, so quickly.
Coming into Thursday’s game, Amendola had made only four catches all season, and had been targeted just eight times in six games.
Against the Jets, Amendola caught only one pass. But it was the play of the game, a 19-yarder from Brady on third-and-goal with less than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. It gave the Patriots an 8-point lead in a game they would win, 27-25.
Redemptive tales were being spun by others — namely Chris Jones, who blocked a would-be game-winning field goal on the final play — but nobody needed a productive, positive night like Amendola did. In addition to the touchdown, he averaged 26.3 yards on his four kickoff returns, and recovered a late onside kick after the Jets scored a touchdown to climb within 2.
“For me, it was just trying to get involved in the game and just try to do as much as I can to create a spark and get involved in the offense,” said Amendola, who couldn’t contain a big smile when he turned around in front of his locker and was met by a wall of reporters and cameras. “It was fun.”
Amendola played 22 snaps on offense, none bigger than the last one. He noticed that Brady was scrambling from the pocket and he adjusted his route, making a move for the end zone.
But the pass was thrown behind Amendola, who turned his body around and caught it as he was crossing the goal line.
“It’s great to see him break through,” said Rob Gronkowski, who had five catches for 68 yards. “He’s a hard worker, good kid, always studying, always working hard, so it’s great to see him have a breakthrough game and make some big plays.”
Amendola once again was the victim of an offensive pass interference call on a teammate — Brandon LaFell, again — which negated a completion. For someone who’s struggled to get on the field and make a contribution, it could have been another sign that this uphill climb would continue. But Amendola fought through, and put himself in position to make maybe the biggest play of the game.
Twice, actually, since he also recovered the onside kick attempt by the Jets, which initially hit LaFell. It was Amendola with the ball at the bottom of the massive pile. Considering the night Amendola had, it seemed fitting.
“Nobody works harder than Danny does. Nobody works harder than Danny,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s working every day: Offense, scout team, special teams. He always works hard. He’s a really competitive kid, tough. No question about it.”
There have been questions about Amendola, though, plenty of them. Why isn’t he playing more? Has he lost Brady’s trust? Can he not create separation and get open? His teammates couldn’t help but notice the critical chatter, and were sympathetic as Amendola kept taking so many hits away from the field.
“Yeah, definitely,” Gronkowski said. “[I] always told him he was going to come through, just got to keep working hard, stay humble, keep grinding. That’s what he does every week, doesn’t say a word. Very happy to see him make some plays out there.”
Did Amendola finally make a point on Thursday, that he can still be a go-to player for the Patriots?
“I always have a point to prove, got to play with a chip on your shoulder,” Amendola said. “I bring that attitude into every single game.”