EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The 11-3 Patriots fully expected to beat the 3-11 Jets Sunday. I don’t want to say there was any lack of urgency, but Bob Kraft didn’t even bother bringing his lifeguard chair for this one.
With Kraft and Jon Bon Jovi watching from standard elevation in a luxury box, the Patriots made the necessary plays in a 17-16 victory that guarantees they don’t have to play a game during the first weekend of the playoffs.
If the Bengals can beat the Broncos in Cincinnati Monday night, the Patriots would clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Let me state categorically that the 2014-15 NFC champion should give Rex Ryan a two-week contract the day after the NFC Championship game. Ryan is almost certain to be fired when the regular season ends, and Sunday in the Meadowlands he again demonstrated that he knows how to attack Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
Unlike most NFL coaches, Ryan is not afraid of New England’s blue meanies and he completely pushed the Patriots out of rhythm for most of the 60 minutes.
That said, here’s what I’m wondering: In the wake of a narrow road victory against a bad team, do you feel better or worse about the Patriots’ chances to break their decade-long Super Bowl drought? Let’s examine the cases for better and/or worse:
■ Better. The Patriots continue to make big plays when big plays need to be made. This was evident twice in the fourth quarter Sunday. It looked like the Patriots were going to fall behind when Brady was intercepted on a tipped ball with 7:18 remaining. The Jets were positioned for nothing worse than a field goal when they lined up for a third-and-4 play from the New England 24. That’s when Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia confused Geno Smith with a new look and Dont’a Hightower smothered Smith for a 10-yard loss. The result was a 52-yard field goal attempt that Vince Wilfork tipped. Ballgame. “It was a look we hadn’t run the whole game,’’ said Belichick. “That made it a much tougher field goal.’’
■ Worse. New England’s offense had a wheel in the ditch all day. The Patriots had only 231 yards of offense. Brady threw for a mere 182 yards, and the Patriots ran for only 85 yards. Brady led the Patriots with seven rushing attempts. Rob Gronkowski managed only six catches for 31 yards. Brady clearly was not happy with the offense’s production and said, “There’s certainly some things we’ve got to clean up. We have to do some things a little differently . . . ”
■ Better. The bend-but-don’t-break defense is New England’s best since the 2003 team that won the Super Bowl in Houston. It’s been the same story for a while now: The Patriots give up a lot of yards between the 20s, but they force the opponent to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. The Jets — who entered the game with the 30th-ranked offense in the NFL — had more yards than the Patriots in the air and on the ground. But they scored only one touchdown, and like most teams, they were unable to score a TD against the Patriots in the second half.
■ Worse. New England’s pass protection was poor. After a seven-week stretch in which the Patriots allowed only three sacks, Brady was sacked four times in the first half. This is how you beat the Patriots: You take chances and pressure Brady. Guys like Marvin Lewis and Chuck Pagano and John Fox are afraid to pressure Brady. They stay back in coverage and let him pick them to pieces. Ryan, Tom Coughlin, and both Harbaugh brothers are fearless. They take chances. They know that this is how you beat New England.
■ Better. The Patriots have learned that the way to win in 2014 is by breaking the rules a little on almost every play. Seattle showed everybody the way last season. The logic is that you hold, clutch, and grab on every play, and take your chances that the zebras eventually will stop calling stuff. They can’t throw a flag on every play. It’s the Brandon Browner Theory. With one game to play, the 2014 Patriots are officially the most-penalized team in team history. This is a good thing.
■ Worse. The Patriots don’t have a pass rush. There were times Sunday when they made Smith look like an average NFL quarterback. This simply is unacceptable. Smith is brutal, and it’s preposterous that he had a chance to beat the Patriots in Week 16. This is alarming. It makes you fear what Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson could do to the Patriots in Glendale.
■ Better. AFC Tomato Cans continue to fall down in front of New England. There is little resistance for the Patriots on their path to the Super Bowl. They own Indy and Cincinnati. Denver cannot win in New England. The Ravens were beginning to look like a threat, but they were humbled by horrible Houston Sunday. Pittsburgh doesn’t have the defense. Name the team capable of coming to Gillette and winning in January.
■ Worse. The Patriots are headed for a fall. The offense has been leaving too many points on the field, and “bend-but-don’t break” doesn’t cut it in the Roman Numeral Game. If you can’t bury the moribund Jets in December, you are not a Super Bowl-winning team.
So what do you say, Patriots fans? Your team is 12-3, almost certainly home until the Super Bowl. You just beat the Jets, 17-16. Are you feeling better or worse about this team’s ability to break the longest championship drought among all four Boston sports teams?