There is no team in the NFL better at formulating and executing a game plan than the Patriots. But what defines a team capable of going 16-0 and beyond is how it responds when things don’t go to plan, when they have to scrap their anticipated path and scratch and claw their way to victory.
Turning a 6-0 start into 16-0 isn’t going to happen without winning games in less-than-pristine fashion.
The Patriots accomplished that on Sunday, outlasting the New York Jets, 30-23, at Gillette Stadium. They put their running game on the shelf — calling 60 pass plays to six designed runs — and overcame issues on third down on both sides of the ball, highlighted by a game-changing third-and-17 conversion. That allowed them to win a rock fight with cornerback-for-hire Darrelle Revis and the Jets.
We might have to put a moratorium on the jokes about the AFC East being stocked with more tomato cans than the local supermarket or the division being the equivalent of Putnam Path to the playoffs, a breezy, express lane free of the normal encumbrances.
The Jets and their new coach, Todd Bowles, looked like they were for real on Sunday. They provided real competition for the Patriots, forcing New England to rally from a 20-16 fourth-quarter deficit to go 6-0 and keep the dream of an undefeated regular season as retribution alive.
The Jets’ defense had allowed four red-zone touchdowns in their first five games. The Patriots scored three on Sunday, two in the fourth quarter. They held battering ram running back Chris Ivory, who entered the game leading the NFL in rushing yards per game, to 41 yards on 17 carries.
“I’m really proud of our team again today,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “It definitely wasn’t our best performance — a lot of things that we left out on the field, just didn’t do well enough. But in the end we were able to make the plays we needed to make when we needed to make them, and that was critical in all three phases of the game.”
Sunday’s showdown with the Jets (4-2) had all the makings of the Patriots’ first loss. The Jets came in with the No. 1 defense in the NFL, allowing 15 points and 269.2 yards per game. The depleted Patriots were missing running back Dion Lewis, tackle Marcus Cannon, and guard Shaq Mason.
The Jets didn’t earn a victory, but they did reignite a tired rivalry and earn some respect.
Sure, Brandon Marshall dropped a potential touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter and then erased any possibility of a miracle ending by being called for a false start when the Jets were frantically trying to spike the ball to set up a Hail Mary.
Yes, Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (22 of 39 for 295 yards and two touchdowns) did commit his obligatory turnover against the Patriots on the second play of the game, leading to a field goal.
The Patriots let so many teams beat themselves. They had to forcibly pry the Jets’ hands off victory and the top spot in the AFC East.
“They did [make us earn it],” said Julian Edelman. “They came out, and we knew it was going to be a dogfight. It was.”
Missing key pieces, plagued by drops, and unable to get the Jets off the field on third down, the Patriots still carved out a 16-10 lead on Stephen Gostkowski’s third field goal of the game.
The Jets fought back.
Fitzpatrick hit Devin Smith for a first down on third and 7 from the New York 23. It was the first of three straight third-down conversion passes. Two plays after the last one, Fitzpatrick flipped the ball to Ivory, who walked in from 9 yards.
That put the Jets back on top, 17-16, with 4:07 left in the third quarter. The Jets extended their lead to 20-16 with 12:50 left in the game.
Forget 16-0, the mighty Patriots were in a football game for the second week in a row and trailing in the fourth quarter for the first time all season.
Then the Patriots and Tom Brady did what championship-caliber teams do. They elevated their game in what Magic Johnson used to call “winning time.”
Abandoning all pretext of a running game and relying on a unique four-wide receiver, one-tight end set, the Patriots mustered the execution necessary to shake the Jets and their doldrums.
Brady, who finished 34 of 54 for 355 yards with two touchdowns and added a 1-yard scoring plunge, orchestrated a 10-play, 80-yard drive that featured nine passes, none of them more important than a 27-yard completion to Edelman on third and 17 from the New England 27.
That play came out of the no-running back set and was aided by the Jets’ decision to play zone coverage.
Brady capped the drive by finding new favorite target Danny Amendola for an 8-yard strike to put the Patriots back on top, 23-20, with 7:16 to go.
The Patriots’ defense came up with a big stop, and Brady tacked on an important touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski.
“I just think there has got to be different ways to win every week,” said Brady. “I think that our team has always tried to figure out ways to attack the teams.”
It does help to have a little luck.
Gostkowski banked in an extra point off the right upright in the second quarter. Brady fumbled in the third quarter, only to have the ball kicked right back to him for . . . a 1-yard gain.
The Patriots have a quick turnaround before they face another AFC East foe, the rejuvenated Dolphins and rah-rah interim coach Dan Campbell.
That bodes well for Belichick and Co. in the quest to take names, take no prisoners and win ’em all.