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Jets were Patriots’ first worthy opponent

The Jets had only three sacks of Tom Brady on Sunday — including this one by Sheldon Richardson in the second quarter — but that’s also because the Patriots frequently kept an extra blocker in the backfield.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Rewatching the Patriots' 30-23 win over the Jets was fun, but not because the Patriots won the game.

It's because the Jets were the first worthy opponent that the Patriots have faced all season. The Steelers, Bills, Cowboys, Colts — none of them gave the Patriots a legitimate competition for 60 minutes like the Jets did on Sunday.

The Jets are good.

The Jets' run defense was so good that the Patriots didn't bother testing it. The Jets' defense was so good that it was able to dictate the matchups to the Patriots' offense, not the other way around, by forcing Rob Gronkowski to stay in and help pick up the blitz.


Todd Bowles's blitz patterns had Tom Brady so confused that Brady was keeping Gronkowski in as a sixth blocker when the Jets were rushing only three defenders.

And the Jets' offense was good enough that it still put up 23 points even with the Patriots shutting down its top two options, Chris Ivory and Brandon Marshall. The Jets' No. 3 option, Eric Decker, had a monster game, and their No. 4 option, Jeremy Kerley, scored a touchdown.

The Jets should have had more points as Marshall dropped an easy touchdown in the fourth quarter. And the Jets pulled off an onside kick and almost blocked an extra point.

Ultimately, Brady's greatness carried the day, with Brady completing 14 of 17 passes in the fourth quarter for 153 yards and two touchdowns. And the Patriots' defense was able to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into enough missed throws at the end of the game to keep the Jets at bay.

If the Jets can stay healthy, they won't be a fun team to play come January.

Other observations after rewatching the Patriots' victory:

When the Patriots had the ball

 The chess game between Brady and Bowles was fascinating to watch. The Jets, known to be the heaviest blitz team in the league, didn’t blitz on New England’s first couple of drives, playing back in zone coverage and negating all of the picks and crossing routes the Patriots ran at the line of scrimmage. As the game wore on, Bowles frequently sent five, six, and seven pass rushers at Brady, forcing quick throws that were stopped short of a first down, while also playing press man coverage and preventing the Patriots’ receivers from getting off the line of scrimmage cleanly.

Bowles continuously sent his linebackers and safeties at Brady — "dictating the matchup" with Gronkowski, so to speak, forcing him to stay in and block on eight passing plays. And Bowles had Brady thoroughly confused on a handful of snaps, with Calvin Pace picking up an easy sack and Gronkowski staying in to block when the Jets sent only three pass rushers.


But the Patriots got their checkmate on the Jets in the fourth quarter. Facing second and 3 from the Jets’ 15, New York blitzed seven defenders and the Patriots countered with a tight end screen, with Gronk pretending to stay in to block then leaking out into the flat, wide open for an easy catch-and-run touchdown that sealed the victory.

The Jets were in zone coverage more than you think, and Brady did a great job of attacking the middle of the field, not the sidelines. The game-saving, third-and-17 conversion to Julian Edelman came against a Cover 4 zone, with Edelman running a deep in-cut across the middle and Brady dropping a beautiful dime between linebacker David Harris and the safety.

When the Jets were in man coverage, that's when Brady sliced them up on the outside with slants and back shoulder throws.

Losing safety Calvin Pryor to injury was a killer for the Jets. Before he got hurt, Gronk caught 3 of 6 targets for 7 yards. On the very first play Pryor was out, Brady hit Gronk for a 26-yarder. Pryor briefly came back, but after he left the game for good Gronk caught 6 of 7 targets for 68 yards and a touchdown. Marcus Gilchrist just couldn’t keep up with him.

 The Jets dared Brady to throw deep, continually stacking nine, 10, and even 11 defenders within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Brady took advantage of zero-deep coverage with the 26-yard fade to Scott Chandler on the outside.

 With Gronk in pass protection, the plays resulted in: Pace’s sack on third down, a 26-yard pass to Chandler on third down, an 11-yard catch by Aaron Dobson, a 6-yard slant to Brandon LaFell, two drops by LaFell, a first-down throw to Edelman for 5 yards, and an incomplete pass to Danny Amendola.

 About those drops: We counted nine in all, including six in the first half. LaFell accounted for six of them, but, to be fair, they weren’t the easiest catches. Two passes were low, one was thrown behind him, one was in tight coverage from Antonio Cromartie, one was too high. But LaFell should have caught two or three of those passes. Edelman had two drops — including one in the end zone — and James White had the other one.

 Have to wonder if Edelman is slowly being replaced in the Brady Circle of Trust by Amendola. While Edelman has had a bad case of the dropsies the past two weeks — including bobbling a perfect pass against Indianapolis that led to Brady’s only interception of the season — Amendola has been pretty darned clutch. Amendola had seven catches for 105 yards against the Colts, then had eight for 86 yards against the Jets, including five catches for 48 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

We worry about Amendola's durability as he often leaves his feet and lands hard on the ground, but he's been incredibly reliable the last two weeks and is finally making good on the potential he brought to the Patriots before the 2013 season.

 The Patriots weren’t messing around with the Jets’ excellent defensive line, as this was the first game all season that the Patriots didn’t rotate their offensive line. They played every snap with Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, Josh Kline at left guard, David Andrews at center, Tre’ Jackson at right guard, and Cameron Fleming at right tackle. Fleming and Jackson had some trouble, giving up a sack to Muhammad Wilkerson and a handful of pressures, but Brady was only sacked/hit on five of 59 dropbacks.

When the Jets had the ball

 The Patriots’ plan was pretty basic — keep an extra defender in the box to stop Ivory and the run game, use No. 2 cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Devin McCourty to take away Marshall, and force the Jets to beat them with third and fourth options. That plan worked fairly well — Ivory rushed for 41 yards on 2.4 yards per carry, and Marshall had a quiet four catches for 67 yards.

But the Jets deserve a ton of credit. They put up 372 total yards and held the ball for 33 minutes, converted 8 of 14 third-down attempts, and Fitzpatrick made a lot of good decisions, correctly identifying the proper read and delivering the ball to his receiver.

The Patriots left Decker and Kerley in 1-on-1 coverage, and Fitzpatrick did a good job of getting them the ball and not forcing it to Marshall.

 Malcolm Butler deserves a bit of a break, because the Patriots put him in a really tough spot, forced to cover Decker all game with no help. Decker is a good, physical receiver, and did a nice job of getting open and making clutch catches, including five third-down conversions and drawing an 18-yard pass interference. Ryan obviously had help from McCourty over the top, but did a nice job of staying competitive and jamming a much-bigger Marshall at the line of scrimmage.

 Dont’a Hightower had a terrific day in the run game, shooting gaps, smashing through fullbacks, and making three run stuffs (runs for zero or 1 yard) among his 10 tackles. Hightower had an awesome WWE-style throwdown of Ivory in the run game, got two pressures on Fitzpatrick (one of which led to a Jamie Collins sack), and absolutely destroyed Nick Mangold on a bull rush.

The Patriots might have the best linebacker duo in the game with Hightower and Collins.

 Patrick Chung was used in the box as an extra run defender throughout the game, and it’s surprising to see him listed with only eight tackles, because he seemed to be in on every play. He also had two nice pass deflections on tight end Jeff Cumberland, though he definitely could’ve been called for pass interference on the one in the end zone. Alan Branch also had two nice stuffs in the run game.

 To slow down the Jets’ run game, the Patriots went bigger on defense. The bigger run-stuffers — Branch and Malcom Brown — got the most snaps among the defensive tackles, while Sealver Siliga, more of a pocket collapser, only got 10 snaps. The Patriots didn’t need Duron Harmon patrolling the deep part of the field, playing him only seven snaps, and using cornerback Justin Coleman in the traditional nickel package on 72 percent of snaps. The Patriots also didn’t rotate much due to the injury to Jabaal Sheard, with McCourty, Chandler Jones, Hightower, Collins, Butler, Ryan, Rob Ninkovich, and Chung all playing at least 90 percent of the snaps.

Jonathan Freeny, a young, athletic linebacker who is good in coverage, played 22 snaps. Jerod Mayo did not play a snap on defense all game, and played just one special teams snap. It's possible the Patriots are saving Mayo for the stretch run as he returns from a knee injury, but it's tough seeing the Patriots' longtime fan favorite get benched like this.


 How did Ivory get so wide open for a walk-in touchdown in the third quarter? Ninkovich had been covering him well in the flat all game, but this time Decker laid a perfect (and perfectly legal) pick on Ninkovich to free up Ivory.

Special teams

 Stephen Gostkowski’s NFL record of 435 straight extra points converted almost came to a halt in the second quarter. Jones neglected to block Cromartie on the edge, Cromartie came this close to blocking the kick, and Gostkowski pushed the kick right, banking it in off the upright.

 This was the second week in a row that the Patriots gave up an onside kick, although the officials incorrectly gave the ball to the Patriots against the Colts. Amendola also had a great 29-yard kickoff return to set up Gronkowski’s game-clinching touchdown, and the Patriots’ defensive line shift caused the Jets to false start on the 50-yard field goal attempt at the end, just like the Steelers complained about in Week 1.

Postgame analysis: Jets at Patriots

The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin gives a postgame analysis for the Patriots’ 30-23 defeat against the Jets. (Video by Alex Lancial, Globe Staff.)

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.