It was almost deja boo.
Like last week in Seattle, the Patriots scored 23 points before allowing their opponent – this time the New York Jets – to take the lead with less than two minutes to go.
Gillette Stadium's capacity crowd was not happy, and fans let their displeasure be heard.
But unlike last week, or in previous losses this season, the Patriots offense fought back, tying the game as the fourth quarter expired, thanks to Stephen Gostkowski's 43-yard field goal (coincidentally, the two field goals the Jets scored to tie and take the brief lead were also both from 43 yards out).
In overtime, the Patriots won the coin toss and received the ball first. Gostkowski again nailed a three-pointer, this one from 48. NFL overtime rules say that if the team with the ball first doesn't score a TD, or if the defense doesn't record a safety on the opening drive, the game continues, with both sides having a chance to possess the ball.
So, it was up to the New England defense to preserve the victory.
And they did.
Rob Ninkovich, who split time between defensive end and outside linebacker, strip-sacked Jets QB Mark Sanchez and recovered the fumble, seven plays into New York's lone drive in OT.
Relief was palpable in the Patriots locker room afterward.
For example, here was Devin McCourty's response to seeing Gostkowski's field goals at the end of regulation and overtime.
"Thank you. Thank you, and then just try to finish defensively," he smiled. "That's something we've been talking about all week, is finishing. Today, we got the win by finishing defensively."
It's been talked about all week internally and externally. There has been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands among fans and media because of how the Patriots are playing, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Yet, to hear other players talk, it's no big deal.
"That's the NFL," Ninkovich stated matter-of-factly. "You're playing against another good team. Obviously, they know us, we know them. They're just hard-fought games. There are things we need to do better. But coming out with a win in the division is big for us… a win's a win. So, we're happy with it."
"We always want to encourage guys, and tell them, 'Don't worry about it. On to the next play.' That's what we did. Yeah, definitely. We weren't frustrated at all," insisted defensive tackle Kyle Love.
"You can't get down," he explained, "because if you let one thing get you down, that's how the rest of the game is going to go and you end up losing like that. You have to put that in the past, keep playing, and playing hard."
"It's nice to win the close games. It's nice to win when you're down 3 with 1:40 in the game," quarterback Tom Brady stated flatly.
Nice, yes. But to many, nerve-wracking, as well.
Though they might not all admit it, some Patriots are willing to concede that this is becoming the problematic identity of the 2012 Patriots: grab a lead, then hold your breath.
"It's tough in this league to stop teams from making plays, period. I think we just have to keep working on it," McCourty continued.
"You never want to give up a lead like that, like we did. I'm happy that we came up with a win," added Ninkovich.
What was the difference today as opposed to last week in Seattle, for instance?
"We executed better. I think that's what it is," Brady offered. "It really wasn't our best day of execution in terms of assignments we have to nail those things down. A lot of those inconsistencies, you don't score points, and we didn't score as many as we needed to. And those last couple of drives, we moved the ball better. I wouldn't say they were great drives, but they were good enough."
"We just kept fighting to the end," wide receiver Wes Welker observed. "We've been fighting before and the plays just didn't go our way and today we made the plays that made the difference."
"I think we played better situational football this week, unlike last week when we just fell down a crack," remarked defensive tackle/co-captain Vince Wilfork. "I think we were prepared, I think we practiced well and I think the guys understood how we wanted to play this game and we played it the way we wanted to.
"Anytime you play a division game, it's tough, especially with the Jets. They're just a tough, tough bunch. Our main job was to get out of this game with a W. I don't care how we get it: get a W."
At the conclusion, while the final play was being reviewed by the replay official up in the booth, Wilfork lay on the turf, not moving, for several moments. Eventually, he got to his feet, placed his hands on his hips, and looked around.
"Yeah, tired, tired, tired," Wilfork explained. "Like I said, this was a tough, physical football game from both sides."
Grab a lead, then hold your breath.
Today, at least, the Patriots were able to exhale. PFW