EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – At first, it looked like the same old story unfolding.
New England's disturbing defensive trend through the first five games appeared to spill over into the sixth, with its beleaguered secondary continuing to give up big-yardage gains in crucial third-down situations and on scoring plays in the early going.
The Jets opened the game with the football and promptly marched 88 yards for a touchdown. This time, critics couldn't blame poster-boy Stephon Gilmore, who was inactive and didn't even travel due to a late-revealed concussion. Johnson Bademosi took his place in the starting lineup and throughout the game. Yet, New York QB Josh McCown chose not to target him as often as he did Malcolm Butler, who was later victimized on a Jeremy Kerley touchdown.
"Early in the game it was on third downs, miscommunications," safety/co-captain Duron Harmon pointed out. "Other than that, we're a lot better defense than we were [today]. We're going to continue getting better each and every week."
Adding to the team's overall misery, the Patriots' offense – relatively stagnant in its previous outing at Tampa Bay – also stumbled out of the gate against New York. For example, wide receiver Brandin Cooks' inconsistency manifested itself when he dropped another easy pass on his first target of the game.
"We weren't doing our job good enough, individually, focusing on little details. It was us," Cooks declared afterward.
He wasn't alone, though. Plenty of first-half miscues offensively: a lost Mike Gillislee fumble, a Tom Brady interception, and a number of failed third-down opportunities. Factor in a terrible non-call on a blatant pass interference penalty on tight end Rob Gronkowski, which would have set New England up with a 1st-and-goal from the Jets' 1, and a missed 47-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski, and it seemed the Patriots were going to head into intermission deservedly trailing the Jets 14-7.
Then, out of almost nowhere, Butler picked off McCown in the first half's waning moments. There was just enough time and not too much real estate for the offense to capitalize.
"I was just out there trying to make a play," Butler explained. "Just got to make impact plays that change the game. That's what I want to do every game. It's not going to happen every game, but I'm glad it happened this game."
"We always talk about it. Turnovers are very key to give our offense another chance to score, the best offense in the league," added Harmon. "It's just about being on the same page and capitalizing on it."
Brady guided New England on a 63-yard scoring drive to tie the game, thanks mostly to a clutch deep-ball catch by Cooks that put the Patriots at the Jets' 2.
"Absolutely. Your mindset anytime you have the ball, especially in moments like that, especially the way the game was going, we needed that," Cooks emphasized. "We needed something. I think that was huge for us."
Gronkowski took control from there. He hauled in a short Brady throw to knot the score, then outmaneuvered the Jets secondary en route to his second TD of the day in the early third quarter. Suddenly, New England was on top, 21-14.
"When we were able to get off the field on third down," Harmon continued, "that's when we started playing good, complementary football. Let's just play fundamental football and we'll be fine."
Just when it seemed like the defense was lapsing again, McCown threw another INT, this time to safety/co-captain Devin McCourty deep in Patriots territory. Gostkowski later added a three-pointer to increase New England's lead to 24-14.
A penalty-marred next series by the Patriots defense appeared to result in a third Jets touchdown. However, several Patriots protested vehemently to the officiating crew, and after reviewing the play (all scoring plays are automatically looked at), a most bizarre ruling determined that the receiver, Jets tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, fumbled the ball in the air as he was being tackled at the goal line.
Since he recovered it out of bounds when he hit the turf, the result of the play was a touchback. New York's six points were removed from the scoreboard and New England took over at their own 20. Butler, once again, was the player at the center of attention, as he caused Seferian-Jenkins to bobble the ball as he went over the goal line.
"I just reached in there and took a chance at the ball," Butler recalled afterward. "I saw it juggle and I just told the ref that the ball came loose as he was going over [the goal line]. He said it was going to get reviewed and it turned out right. We got the call. That's all that matters."
More big plays allowed by the defense, though, allowed the Jets to chip away with a field goal and get the back later – after the offense couldn't convert a key third-down – within one score at the 2-minute warning. Somehow (a pair of late sacks and improved coverage in the secondary) New England managed to hang on for the important division win.
Issues – significant ones – clearly still remain for New England on both sides of the ball. However, the Patriots made more steps in the right direction yet again this week, as they did versus Tampa Bay.
"We played okay. We played good. We could play better," admitted safety Patrick Chung. "We're going to try to get better. But we're making progress. We have to make more plays and be consistent. We'll take the win."
"I don't like playing the Jets. But we got the win. That's all that matters," Butler concluded.
It wasn't the prettiest of wins, but it puts them back where they're accustomed to being: atop the AFC East.