FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots had two objectives for this final day of calendar year 2017:
1) Secure the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC with a win over the New York Jets; and 2) Do so without losing any important players to injury.
On both counts, they succeeded.
Bill Belichick's squad showed even before kickoff that they were determined to put this game to bed early. After winning the coin toss, instead of deferring to the second half as they customarily do, the Patriots elected to receive – an indication that they wanted to score quickly, build a lead, and perhaps rest some key players thereafter.
That's how the script played out at first, with the Patriots marching promptly downfield in 13 plays, culminating with RB Dion Lewis' 3-yard touchdown dive. On that opening drive, New York looked like it wanted no part of this game in 13-degree weather, but on the next few Patriots possession, the roles reversed. New England's offense started to sputter, while the Jets found a rhythm with the football.
However, New York couldn't manage more than a field goal on the scoreboard, and the Patriots eventually got back in their groove thanks to several untimely defensive penalties by the Jets. The Patriots took a 21-3 lead into halftime.
"We knew with the weather conditions that they were going to try to establish the run. We knew, in order to get them one-dimensional, we had to stop the run," observed defensive end Trey Flowers. The Patriots wound up holding the Jets to just 40 yards on the ground.
"Credit to the big guys up front [on the defensive line]," added Flowers. "And on third downs, we were able to put them in some tough situations."
"We had talked about it during the week," remarked safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "A lot of our third down comes down to individual matchup – just someone winning it, whether it's in the pass rush, whether it's in coverage. [We're] just trying to execute that and play better. Most of our [recent] breakdowns were a guy makes a good catch or we should be a little tighter or we just missed a sack and the quarterback gets out of the pocket. I thought we just did a better job of executing and finishing those plays."
The game also gave the Patriots an opportunity to integrate newly-acquired linebacker James Harrison on defense. He contributed with a pair of sacks and a tackle-for-loss in his debut.
"I don't really listen for what people say I can do; I listen for what they say I can't do. I want to prove them wrong," Harrison said afterward about his motivation Sunday. "I want to show that I'm still able to do it. I may not be able to do it like I used to, but… I should be out there.
"I feel like we had a few big plays tonight… I got no more or less responsibility than I had all week in practice. I was getting a lot of help from the guys around me."
"It was good just to see him out there playing," continued McCourty, "then to end the game the way he did [with a pair of consecutive sacks] was how we want to end defensively."
With respect to preserving the health of their players, the Patriots were fortunate. For the second straight week, Lewis had a career high in touches (26 rushing attempts, plus six receptions) with fellow backs James White, Rex Burkhead, and Mike Gillislee inactive with various injuries. Lewis took a pounding, but seemed no worse for the wear after the game.
"A lot of guys are out. Normally, my role wouldn't be that big, but… I embrace it," Lewis told reporters. "I like helping my team win. I had a lot of fun. We won. Great way to close the year."
In the middle of the second quarter, it appeared that left tackle Nate Solder got rolled up on from behind when Lewis was tackled into the back of his legs. Yet, Solder popped up immediately, and despite a brief limp continued to play through the remainder of the game. It also looked like New England was careful with Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. He started the game and played a majority of the snaps, but QB Tom Brady didn't target him once, and that may have been by design, to prevent him from being walloped by the Jets.
Defensively, linebacker Kyle Van Noy suited up again for his first game since Week 13, but the Patriots managed his snap count, it seemed, to work him back slowly from the right calf injury that has limited his availability lately. Fellow linebacker Elandon Roberts exited the game with less than a minute to play in the 3rd quarter after sustaining what looked like an arm or shoulder injury, but it didn't appear serious, as he returned on the next series.
New England must now wait to find out which foe they'll next face and when, exaclty. Meantime, the team can now enjoy New Year's Day and the day after. The Patriots have been given those two days off before they are scheduled to come back for practices and playoff preparations on Wednesday and Thursday.
The playoffs are often referred to by players and coaches as the "second season" within any given season, and this team sounds relieved to have reached a coveted goal that, at times this year, seemed like it might not be achieved.
"Feels great. I think that [playoff bye week]'ll be huge," admitted WR Brandin Cooks, "to be able to come here and get some good work, get some rest, get some [injured] guys back. It'll be huge.
"We've got some work to do. We're not where we want to be. That's what practice is for. The great thing about it is we've got [at least] one more chance to go out there."
"This is when the season starts for us," Flowers insisted. "We've got to come in and work on ourselves, continue to focus, and keep pushing forward. We definitely had some struggles [in 2017], but we stayed together and continued to get better, and we put ourselves in a great position to finish the season all right."
"[The No. 1 seed]'s important, but it's not the only thing that's important," Lewis concluded. "We're definitely happy to have home-field throughout the playoffs, but you're only guaranteed to have one game. We know we have one game in two weeks that we'll be home for, so, we've got to put our all into that game and see what we can do."