CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Sixty minutes of football on Sunday mirrored six games of the season for the Patriots.
The Patriots’ first division game of the season was a microcosm of their season. It featured a confounding and frustrating slow start, periods of play where the Patriots were unrecognizable, followed by the team gradually rounding into more familiar form. But it still left you with the feeling they’re falling short of the Fort Foxborough standard.
Like water, football finds its level. The Patriots found theirs as a first-place team, and the New York Jets, who entered as winners of three straight, sunk to theirs like the divisional detritus that they are. Aided and abetted by the Jets’ self-destructive DNA, the Patriots scored a 24-17 victory at MetLife Stadium to reclaim their rightful perch atop the AFC East.
After a half-dozen games, the Patriots are where they’re expected to be — in first place — but they haven’t lived up to their own expectations or anyone else’s. You could hear that reality echoed in the postgame comments of coach Bill Belichick and battered quarterback Tom Brady. This was merely a satisfactory effort that led to a dissatisfying victory. Nothing more. Only an organization with five Lombardi trophies and a standing invitation for the AFC Championship game has the luxury of lamenting wins. But the big picture always looms for the Patriots, and right now at 4-2 it’s still fuzzy.
“We just didn’t execute as well as we needed to,” said Brady, who came away from the game unscathed with his left shoulder injury, but scowled his way through a disappointing performance. “I think that’s probably the theme, just execution. We’ll keep at it. It’s only the sixth game of the year, so there’s still a lot to figure out. We’ll just keep going out to practice and try to do better.”
How you feel about the Patriots depends on whether you’re a water bottle half-full or half-empty type of person. You can look at the bottom-line results and be optimistic. Or you can look at the fact that the defense has allowed every quarterback this year to pass for more than 300 yards against them — the latest being eminently ordinary Jets quarterback Josh McCown (31 of 47 for 354 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions) — and declare the Patriots doomed.
Luckily, the path-of-least-resistance AFC East is the perfect division for a team trying to work out the kinks. Defying conventional wisdom and the laws of nature, the Patriots and Jets came into Sunday’s game with identical 3-2 records.
The Patriots found themselves in a 14-0 hole with 12:18 to go in the first half thanks to certified Patriots Killer Jeremy Kerley. Mr. Kerley set up the Jets’ first touchdown with a fantastic leaping 30-yard grab to the 1 on New York’s first drive. The Jets cashed in with a 1-yard touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins (remember that name). After Mike Gillislee fumbled, Kerley made a leaping catch and pulled away from Malcolm Butler for a 31-yard score.
It looked like all of Belichick’s praise for the competitiveness of the Jets wasn’t just perfunctory fluffing of an opponent.
The Patriots erased the lead. Running back Dion Lewis, removed from the backfield witness protection program, scored on a 1-yard run, set up by a pass-interference penalty drawn by Rob Gronkowski, with 5:19 left in the first half.
McCown threw a ghastly interception to Butler with 35 seconds left in the half. Brady hit Brandin Cooks with a picture-perfect parabola down the left sideline for 42 yards. Two plays later, Brady hit Gronk (six catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns) for a 2-yard touchdown.
Tied at 14, the teams were as even as could be at the half. The Jets had 213 yards. The Patriots had 212. Both teams had run 38 plays. Both were averaging 5.6 yards per play. But it felt like the Patriots had the advantage.
They had it on the scoreboard after the first drive of the second half. Brady, who finished 20 of 38 for 257 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, found Gronk for a 33-yard catch-and-run score. The Patriots’ offensive line played its own brand of strong defense, keeping Brady and his injured left shoulder out of harm’s way. He wasn’t sacked, and he was hit four times.
After going down, 14-0, the Patriots’ defense stopped the Jets on their next six possessions (not counting a kneeldown to end the first half). New York had three straight three-and-out punts, the Butler interception, a Devin McCourty interception on fourth down at the New England 34, and the disputed Seferian-Jenkins overturned touchdown-turned-touchback, a Tuck Rule 2.0 ruling.
“You got to look at one thing — points. How many points did they score? Seventeen,” said Patriots safety Duron Harmon. “That’s a lot less than the 30 that we were giving up at the beginning of the year. So, we’re making progress. Is it where we want it to be? No, but the idea that we’re making progress is really good.”
Belichick showed faith in the defense, calling a draw on third and 15 from the Jets’ 16 to settle for an easy field goal that put the Patriots up two scores (24-14) with 14:10 left. Belichick’s faith wasn’t really rewarded, but a Patriots prayer was answered by the league’s officiating command center across the Hudson River.
Seferian-Jenkins was initially ruled to have scored a touchdown with 8:24 to go, as the Jets tight end muscled his way to the left pylon. However, upon replay review it was determined that Seferian-Jenkins committed a Phantom Fumble. He temporarily lost control of the ball as he fell toward the pylon. Touchback, no touchdown.
Still, the Patriots had to sweat out another win. Trailing, 24-17, the Jets had the ball on their 27 with 1:53 to go. The defense delivered a stop and the top in the AFC East. But it wasn’t easy or pretty.
That’s the story of the Patriots’ season.
“We had a good day today, man. I mean, it’s never perfect,” said Harmon. “We gave up a 300-yard passer, but at the end of the day we got a win in a tough place, and we’re No. 1 in the division. You can’t be mad at that.”
You can’t be mad at them for winning, but you can’t be happy with their play either.
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