FOXBOROUGH-* *It's kind of eerie how the end of this season is similar in many ways to last year. In some ways, it's like a do-over or a mulligan, for you golfers out there.
Late in November, the Patriots traveled to Denver for a matchup with Broncos teeming with playoff implications. New England failed to hold on to a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead and lost, yet still had a chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC postseason with a win in either of their final two contests at the New York Jets or Miami. They failed to do either, in part because it appeared as if they took those last two games too lightly. That ultimately cost them both the No. 1 seed and, by extension, the Super Bowl.
Fast-forward to this year, and again New England travels to Denver, this time in December, and holds tight to its double-digit fourth-quarter lead. In the final two weeks, the Patriots again face the Jets – at home this time – and Miami on New Year's Weekend, needing a win in at least one (possibly both) of those games.
During the past week, Patriots players who were on last season's team spoke to reporters about the need to finish this year stronger than 2015. It quickly became apparent that these proclamations were more than just lip service.
Defensively, the Patriots stifled second-year Jets QB Bryce Petty, harassing him with two first-quarter sacks and a Malcolm Butler interception.
That aggressiveness continued in the early second quarter, when rookie LB Elandon Roberts knifed into the backfield to force a Jets fumble that Butler was right there to recover.
"I've been hoping for a game like this and it finally came," Butler declared. "It was an overall great win. We played good defense. The offense took advantage of those opportunities, also. I'm just glad we got the win."
New England jumped out to a 13-0 lead, which could easily have been even an even bigger margin. But by this point, the Patriots had treated Petty so roughly that he had to leave the game with a shoulder injury. Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick came on in relief, giving New York a glimmer of hope. However, Fitzpatrick's first drive ended with a dropped touchdown and missed field goal attempt on consecutive plays.
New England's defense, which struggled in the first half of the season to make big plays, has been making up for lost time since the mid-season bye week.
Starting right corner Eric Rowe joined the big-play fray, making a tremendous, leaping interception of Fitzpatrick on the ensuing Jets drive. That set up QB Tom Brady's second TD pass of the day – tight end Matt Lengel's first in the NFL – and gave the Patriots a comfy 20-0 lead.
"Anytime they get turnovers, we try to score points and take advantage of those situations," remarked TE Martellus Bennett, who caught Brady's first touchdown throw. "I think we did it four or five times today, and that's very special. The defense went out and played very well. It was very complementary football. Special teams did a great job of pining them [deep]. We had great field position the whole game."
At halftime, with a 27-0 lead, the game was all but over.
With the heavy rain ending and the sun reappearing, the second half was all about having fun. No play epitomized that more than Brady's running in circles in the backfield before completing a 28-yard pass to WR Julian Edelman on 3rd-and-16. The capacity crowd at Gillette roared to life, chanting "M-V-P" to express how they feel about their 39-year-old QB. He bowed out in the late third quarter, yielding to backup Jimmy Garoppolo for the remainder of the contest.
For good measure, RB LeGarrette Blount added another couple of scores on the ground, his 16th and 17th rushing touchdowns of the season.
"A lot of guys made plays today, so it was nice," Brady said post-game.
"We're playing good, complementary ball," echoed Rowe. "The pass rush is getting there, the back end is holding up. It goes hand-in-hand with the sacks and interceptions. I have a lot of confidence in this defense now.
"We are starting to develop chemistry, especially since after Thanksgiving. That's a huge emphasis in this organization. It's coming together at the right time. Hopefully, we're going to carry it on into the postseason."
The final score – indeed, the entire performance on both sides of the ball – was an emphatic statement that the Patriots learned from their conservative approach to their playoff push last season. New England proved that it is determined to keep both hands on the No. 1 seed to ensure yet another postseason without having to leave Gillette Stadium.
To do that, the Patriots just might have to give one more determined effort next Sunday against the Dolphins in South Florida.
"I'm very excited. Thirteen wins is a great honor," Lengel proclaimed. "We're going to enjoy this one for a couple of days. My brother's in from Seattle, so, we're going to enjoy this one tonight, then come back and get ready for Miami."