EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — After a Tom Brady interception set up the Jets in field-goal range midway through the fourth quarter of a 1-point game, the Patriots called on their defense and special teams to help win the game.
In a span of two plays, they did just that.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower sacked Geno Smith on third and 4 from the Patriots’ 24-yard-line, and the 10-yard loss meant a longer go-ahead field goal attempt. From 52 yards, Nick Folk had his try tipped at the line of scrimmage by Vince Wilfork. Another blocked kick — the fifth of the season for the Patriots, and their second in two games this year against Folk and the Jets — preserved a 17-16 lead, a score that held up when the offense ran the clock out.
They got to Smith only twice, and blocked only the one kick. But those two plays went a long way toward the Patriots (12-3) clinching no worse than a first-round playoff bye.
“It was nothing special that I did,” said Wilfork, who joins teammates Chandler Jones, Chris Jones, Brandon Bolden, and Jamie Collins with kick blocks this season. “I just 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, the wins, and we walk away with another one.”
They might not have without Hightower’s sack. The linebacker blitzed Smith from the left side, came in clean, and threw the Jets quarterback down. Without the sack, Folk tries a 42-yard field goal. He hasn’t missed from 45 yards and in all season.
“Based on what Matty P [defensive coordinator Matt Patricia] dialed up and the way they were trying to protect things, it definitely ended in our favor,” Hightower said. “I think Rob [Ninkovich] had a running back on him, so any time that we can get our good pass rushers on a running back, we want to take advantage of that. It was really big; we definitely needed that. We were able to push them back, farther out in field goal range.”
Said Smith, who threw for 210 yards and a touchdown: “The guys got on me fast. As soon as I got the snap, I felt immediate pressure. In those situations, we always talk about situational football, and in those situations, my job is to throw the ball away [and] prevent the sack.”
He couldn’t, bringing on Folk, who had a 58-yarder blocked by Chris Jones on the final play of the Patriots’ 27-25 win at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 16. This time it was Wilfork, who got just enough of it. It’s the third week in a row the Patriots have blocked a kick.
“It was huge. With the way the game was going, it was tough offensively for both sides; points were hard to come by. For Vince to be able to get his hand on it and take away that scoring opportunity, it really affected the outcome of the game,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “It’s a different guy blocking it every week, but the common thread there is [special teams coaches] Scott O’Brien and Joe Judge, and the work they put in to put us in the right position. The big thing is we really believe every time the ball is kicked, we have a chance to block it. That really goes a long way for you.”
It wasn’t just the sack by Hightower and the block by Wilfork. The Jets, who ran for 218 yards in the first meeting and a 5.1 yards-per-carry average, were held to 116 rushing yards on 32 carries. The Patriots also kept them out of the end zone all three times they reached the red zone, and gave the offense prime field position when Jamie Collins intercepted an underthrown pass by Smith late in the third quarter. The ensuing touchdown gave the Patriots the lead for good.
“It comes down to a couple plays here or there, and that goes both ways,” Ninkovich said. “Offensively we were able to make a couple plays that won us the game, and defensively we were able to do the same thing. [Hightower’s sack], Jamie’s interception, the blocked field goal. It was all big.”