EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Most Patriots players gave the standard answers after Sunday’s 17-16 win over the Jets about why the offense struggled against the league’s ninth-worst scoring defense entering the game (25.7 points per game).
“We’ll have to watch the tape.”
“The Jets’ defense is a lot better than their 3-11 record indicates.”
“We just have to get better one day at a time.”
Privately, though, a couple of players were willing to acknowledge what anyone watching the game could tell: The Patriots’ offensive line was getting run over.
“It definitely needs to get better,” guard Ryan Wendell said. “Today wasn’t how we drew it up.”
The Patriots escaped the Meadowlands with a win, which was the most important outcome of the day. They improved to 12-3, clinched a first-round bye, and need either a win against Buffalo or a Denver loss in one of its final two games to clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
And they did it without four key starters, including three on offense — receiver Julian Edelman, running back LeGarrette Blount, and left guard Dan Connolly. Against a division rival that knows them well, too.
“It’s like playing against your little brother,” said running back Jonas Gray, who rushed six times for a whopping 5 yards. “They know all your tricks.”
The offense, though, was uglier than Rex Ryan in a tutu.
The Patriots’ 231 total yards were their fewest in a win since beating San Diego in October of 2010. Tom Brady was hit 11 times, his new season-high, and his four sacks tied for the most he has taken this year (Miami in Week 1).
The Patriots allowed all four sacks in the first half, and mustered just 7 points and 52 total yards before putting together a couple of drives and capitalizing on a key interception in the second half.
The Patriots spread out the Jets and switched to an up-tempo attack in the second half, and it was just enough to buy Brady some time and put 10 points on the board.
“That was good,” Brady said of the up-tempo. “We got into a little rhythm there. I think it settled a few things down.”
But it’s not easy to have a ton of confidence in the Patriots’ offense right now. The Patriots are plugging along on another three-game win streak following the loss at Green Bay, but they haven’t put together 60 solid minutes of offensive football since the win over the Colts six games ago.
They struggled in the second half against the Lions. Trailed, 23-14, at halftime to the Packers. Trailed, 14-3, to the Chargers before waking up. Led the Dolphins, 14-13, at halftime thanks to a blocked field goal TD return. Trailed the Jets, 10-7, at the half Sunday.
And they haven’t averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry in any of their last three games.
“We have to play better from the start of the game,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “No doubt about that.”
The offensive struggles start, of course, with the five guys up front. Or, as was the case on Sunday, six or seven guys.
With Connolly out with a knee injury, the Patriots went with second-year player Josh Kline at left guard. They also brought in Marcus Cannon as a sixth offensive lineman, and Cameron Fleming as a seventh on a few short-yardage situations.
Kline has played well in spurts this year, including starts against the Jets and Bills in October, but he was clearly outmatched Sunday by the Jets’ terrific trio of Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, and Sheldon Richardson.
Kline took a seat on the bench after halftime, as Wendell moved over to left guard and Fleming, a natural tackle, took over at right guard.
Although the Patriots settled down in the second half and didn’t allow a sack, they still clearly missed Connolly, the captain of the offensive line and one of the team’s leaders. Brady had hands in his face all game, and did a great job of getting rid of the football and avoiding crippling mistakes.
“Yeah, I think they give good protection. I just think our communication wasn’t great,” Brady said. “We just weren’t all on the same page. Our communication needs to be on point, and we just kind of sputtered. So we’ve got to be able to do a better job of that, especially here down the stretch.”
And just because the Patriots didn’t allow a sack in the second half doesn’t mean they were pleased with their effort.
“I don’t like to say we played well because we didn’t give up a sack,” Wendell said. “It’s our job not to give up sacks. We should’ve been playing better in the first half.”
The Patriots have a Super Bowl-caliber defense led by Darrelle Revis. They have a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback and versatile weapons at running back, tight end, and receiver.
But if one unit can prevent this team from getting to Arizona in February, it’s the offensive line. The unit was the most responsible for the Patriots’ struggles during the first four games of the season, and now is responsible for their slow starts in recent weeks.
The unit recovered from the shocking trade of Logan Mankins at the start of the season, but it now needs help. Nate Solder continues to struggle with speed rushers and has one or two bad breakdowns per game. Connolly and Wendell are both on their last legs, and one, if not both, might not be back next year. You can almost guarantee that the Patriots will use one of their top picks on an offensive lineman in the 2015 draft.
The way coach Bill Belichick praised the Jets defense after the game, it was like he knew how badly it overmatched his offensive line.
“They have a lot of good players up there. They’re well-coached. They have a good front that’s hard to block,” he said. “We battled.”
That’s all well and good against a team with no offensive punch like the Jets. But come playoff time, when the Patriots have to face the Broncos or the Steelers or the Seahawks or the Packers, the Patriots can’t afford to get pushed around up front, or to fall into an early hole.
The good news is the Patriots no longer have to play the Jets, who have given them two hard-fought games this year. The bad news is that the offensive line appears to be regressing at the wrong time of the season.
“What can I say?” right tackle Sebastian Vollmer said. “Watch film and get better.”