EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It's often difficult to go back to work after a long holiday weekend like Thanksgiving. We've all been there at some point, right?
The Patriots appeared to have that problem right off the bat Sunday evening against the Jets. New England's offense looked lethargic – quarterback Tom Brady had difficulty connecting with his receivers on both short and long pass attempts – while on defense, it was a familiar song and dance: lack of pass rush and big pass plays surrendered. Just seconds into the second quarter, New York soared to a 10-0 lead.
"It's tough, man. We know each other… probably don't get along too well. But they're a good team when it comes to playing us," cornerback Malcolm Butler observed. "Coach [Bill Belichick] said it was going to be a dog-fight and that's exactly what it was."
It got worse for the Patriots when tight end/co-captain Rob Gronkowski, already battling through a chest injury, injured his back and had to be escorted to the locker room for treatment before the first quarter expired. He never resurfaced.
The Patriots showed some signs of life in the second quarter, thanks to Martellus Bennett and a trick play featuring WR Chris Hogan throwing a pass that resulted in a pass interference penalty deep in Jets territory. Brady's connectivity issues continued, though, in part due to pressure from New York's front that forced the QB to hurry his throws. Stephen Gostkowski chipped away at New York's lead with a field goal.
Then the defense did its part, forcing a turnover for the first time in four games. Safety/co-captain Devin McCourty ripped the ball loose from WR Robby Anderson and cornerback Malcolm Butler pounced on it.
"It was big," McCourty declared. "I said during the week, nothing will help us more than cutting some drives. [Turnovers] showed to be a big factor today."
Brady and the Patriots offense immediately marched 50 yards in seven plays to knot things up at 10. What looked initially like a botched play – Brady fumbled the shotgun snap and the ball hit the turf – wound up with TB12 finding rookie WR Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone for the youngster's second score in as many weeks.
The New England Patriots take on the New York Jets in a regular season game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, November 27, 2016.
"He's a big part of our success… he's got awesome hands," fellow wideout Chris Hogan gushed later. "We always look for him to make those kind of plays."
Defensive tackle Alan Branch – playing while appealing an NFL suspension – came up big on special teams when he blocked a long Jets field goal attempt in the late first half. The effort kept the score tied at 10, but also gave the offense a shot to take the lead.
Curious clock management in the final minute, though, left the Patriots with just one shot at the end zone, which was broken up, and yet another missed kick by Gostkowski, this time from 39 yards out.
It seemed equitable that the teams went to halftime locked in a stalemate, as the Jets dominated the first quarter and the Patriots the second.
The momentum pendulum appeared to continue in New England's direction throughout the third quarter, although not by much. The Patriots clung to a 13-10 lead entering the final stanza. Rushing yards were at a premium for both sides, and the game turned into a defensive slugfest.
New York regained the lead on a too-close-to-call touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Quincy Enunwa that was initially rule incomplete, but reversed after further review by referee Brad Allen.
That controversial call ignited the Patriots offense, which marched down field promptly and nearly recaptured the lead, but a Brady pass to Mitchell slipped through the rookie's hands as he dove along the right side of the end zone. New England settled for a field goal to trim New York's advantage to just one point with half a quarter left to play.
"I have to say, we have a team full of great guys, great friends, who kept me encouraged after I felt pretty miserable after missing that one," Mitchell remarked. "Honestly, I was just thankful that our team got another opportunity after I felt like I messed up an opportunity for us. I'm glad our defense gave us another opportunity to have a chance to win that game."
New England's defense did its job, as Mitchell pointed out, getting the ball back for the offense, and Brady found the rookie again for the go-ahead TD just after the two-minute warning of the game.
A failed two-point conversion meant the Jets could win with a touchdown, down just five points, but the Patriots D, which hadn't forced a turnover in four games, chose an ideal time to come up with another one.
Fitzpatrick was strip-sacked from behind by DE Chris Long and fellow DE Trey Flowers recovered. Brady and the O then ran out the clock.
"We knew it was going to be a good game, come down to the last [possession]," added McCourty. "When you take that field, it's all on you. Offense did the job, going down and scoring. Now it was all on us to get a stop and Chris came through with a big play. The sack-fumble is something we needed and he made the play."
"It was clutch time. We needed a turnover, we needed a stop," said Butler. "Chris did a good job of doing that. Just playing smart football, situational football."
"They played awesome the entire day," Hogan said of the defense. "To come up with a big play like that at the end of the game, credit to them. That was awesome and we were able to seal the deal after that."
"Man, they played extremely well," concluded Mitchell. "Complementary football, as Coach says. You can't ask for anything more."
Well, maybe you can. Oh, by the way, along the way, Brady surpassed a historic milestone, passing for more than 60,000 yards in his pro career, and collecting his 200th win as a pro, tying Peyton Manning for the league lead all-time in that category.
More significantly, though, it was a statement game for the banged up Patriots, who beat a tough division foe on the road on a day when they weren't at their best offensively, and when their much-maligned defense came through in the clutch. By doing so, New England kept pace with the other AFC leaders, the Oakland Raiders, in the race for the top playoff spot in the conference.