EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The large right hand of Vince Wilfork on Sunday helped save the Patriots from the embarrassment of losing to the three-win Jets; the uncertainty of not clinching a first-round bye in the playoffs; the possibility of losing the AFC’s top seed; and from the pleasure of possibly playing at home until the Super Bowl.
Wilfork made contact with Nick Folk’s 52-yard fourth-quarter field-goal try, a kick that could have given the Jets the lead with just more than five minutes to play in a game in which points were at an absolute premium.
The attempt was well short, teammates crowded around Wilfork, the Patriots’ sideline celebrated, and a few minutes later the offense got the first down it needed to kill the clock and preserve a 17-16 victory over their division rival.
The victory ensured the Patriots will have one of the first two seeds in the AFC, and the first-round bye that comes with it. If the Bengals beat the Broncos at home Monday night, the Patriots will clinch the top seed.
“I had a good opportunity to make a play and I did it for the team,” said Wilfork. “It was nothing special that I did. I penetrated a little bit and got my hands up and got a piece of it. I’m glad it helped my team win a ballgame. That’s what it’s all about.”
In both Patriots wins over the Jets this season — by a combined 3 points — a blocked kick played a significant role. In October, Chris Jones blocked Folk’s last-second attempt to give New York the win at Gillette Stadium.
And then came Sunday.
“It was a long kick like the one we had in New England, like Chris did,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Vince put his hand up and the ball was a little low. The key to blocking the kick was being in front of the ball. Vince got himself there and made the play.”
“Awesome,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “[Wilfork] is always a big-time playmaker for us. He’s a great player and he always makes great plays.”
The Jets had to settle for the long field goal try because quarterback Geno Smith (17 of 27, 210 yards, touchdown, interception) was sacked on third down by Dont’a Hightower.
On the third-down snap from the New England 24, Hightower dragged Smith down 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, changing the kick for Folk.
“You can’t take the sack there no matter who is in your face,” lamented Jets coach Rex Ryan, who may have coached his final home game with the team. “Get rid of the football. You can’t take sacks in those situations.”
“It was a real big play,” Belichick said. “That was a look we hadn’t run all game. I thought [defensibe coordinator] Matt [Patricia] made a great call in that situation. The sack, I’m not going to say it knocked them out of field-goal range, but made it a much tougher field goal.”
The Jets lined up for the field goal attempt, then called timeout, and Belichick believed they were thinking about punting.
“I think those yards had a lot to do with their strategy and the changes there in the end helped us a little bit,” he said. “The kick was forced a bit lower and had a lower trajectory, but that was a big play. We had a number of big plays today defensively.”
Devin McCourty believes it is the defense’s job to come up with key plays at key times.
“That’s our job description,’’ he said. “We have enough talent that we feel we can go out there and do that in big games, in every game really. “I think the key for us is when we’re out there, guys just keep talking – they have one good drive, it’s ‘all right, let’s get off the field now’ or if they get in the red area, ‘OK, let’s make them kick three’, just sticking to that and playing to that allows our defense to just keep playing and we just keep playing until we make those big plays.”
An interception by Jamie Collins in the third quarter put the Patriots inside Jets’ territory, helping set up the go-ahead touchdown.
The possession was punctuated by another Brady scramble — he’s beginning to make them a regular part of his arsenal — this one for 11 yards. Jonas Gray, whose touches increased with LeGarrette Blount unable to play, punched it in from a yard.
Although the defense and special teams had some big plays — a 39-yard punt return by Danny Amendola on the first play of the second quarter set up New England’s first touchdown — the offense was once again flat early.
The first quarter saw seven total possessions, and seven punts. Brady (23 of 35, 182 yards, touchdown, interception) was sacked four times in the first half, tying a season high. The Jets were credited with hitting him 11 times in the official scorebook.
Those numbers speak to the continued struggles of the offensive line. Dan Connolly did not play because of an injury, and Josh Kline started in his place at left guard. At halftime, Kline was benched, Ryan Wendell was kicked from right guard to left, and Cameron Fleming was inserted at right guard.
The Jets’ front seven is fearsome, and the Patriots at times had seven linemen on the field to try to combat that group.
“I think they’re giving good protection, I just think our communication wasn’t great,” Brady said. “We all just weren’t on the same page. [The Jets] have a lot of guys coming. Our communication needs to be on point, and it just kind of sputtered. We need to do a better job of that.”
The Patriots trailed, 10-7, at the half and 13-7 with 6:40 to play in the third quarter before mounting their comeback, first with a short field goal from Stephen Gostkowski and then the touchdown in the fourth quarter.
“That was great,” Brady said of coming from behind. “I’m glad it came out the way it did, it makes for a better Christmas. It’s always tough to win here; they’re a good team. They always play us pretty hard. We got their best today.
“We found a little rhythm there in the second half and got some points on the board. It’s about making the critical plays, and we found a way to do it.”