EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Tonight was not about the stats.
Although the statistics were very good.
Like Andre Carter's team record 4.5 sacks. Or Rob Gronkowski's 113 yards and two touchdowns. Or Rob Ninkovich's pair of interceptions, including a back-breaking pick-six of Jets QB Mark Sanchez. Or Tom Brady's 329 yards passing, putting him over 3,000 for the season after just nine games (an NFL record).
No, tonight was not about those things you can measure and calculate. It was about those things you can't.
Like heart. And determination. And self-confidence. And resilience.
It was about players who'd never contributed significant minutes in the NFL being asked to start on defense – rookies, no less – and being equal to the challenge. Better, in some cases.
Patrick Chung, a game-time scratch? No problem. Insert Sterling Moore, an undrafted corner-turned-safety by necessity.
Dane Fletcher and Brandon Spikes both out at inside linebacker. What, me worry? Not with Jeff Tarpinian in the lineup, another undrafted rookie who stepped in to stanch the bleeding.
Even Julian Edelman, the third-year wide receiver/kick returner who fumbled a punt last week, yet was asked to play emergency defensive back at the game's end and managed to register a tackle.
Niko Koutouvides, a veteran linebacker re-signed this week after a training camp stint, comes up with a momentum-changing fumble recovery.
Championship-caliber teams are able to come up with performances like this, when their backs are against the wall and they absolutely must have a win, because they have experience upon which to fall back. But this Patriots team is populated by undrafted players, journeymen, and only a few savvy veterans who know what winning titles feels like.
Yet, they managed to manufacture a potentially character-defining victory.
"In general, we're just a team that goes out there and tries to find a way to win," Carter observed. "It was frustrating to lose two close games back-to-back. There wasn't a time when we questioned ourselves, but we had to look at ourselves in the mirror as men and as football players and just say, 'OK, what will be our defining moment?' Are we going to go out there and be unsuccessful or play the game we're capable of."
"We've been up and down. It hasn't been what we wanted it to be," echoed Ninkovich. It was a work in progress. Knowing the two previous losses were tough, we had to bounce back. We knew that this week was a huge week for our defense, and our team."
During the week, Brady predicted that this would be a defining moment for his club, the younger teammates in particular. He just couldn't guarantee what that definition would be.
Immediately afterward, he took a stab at it.
"I think we battle. Some of the guys in there, you don't really know … I mean, we know who they are, but we've never seen them perform under pressure. Some of the guys are coming off the practice squad, playing scout team defense, and then I see them in the game on our defense. A lot of guys really stepped up to the challenge. It was good to see."
It is just one game, though. One win, albeit a momentous one, in terms of division standings and tiebreakers and playoff implications. But as the veterans who've been through these situations before were quick to point out, there are still seven weeks left in the regular season.
And it's in those coming days that the tougher tests will be administered.
"It's also all about how focused this team will be going into next week," wide receiver Deion Branch cautioned. "You play a division rival, everyone's up so high. Now we're going back, we've got another tough game against Kansas City. How do we respond to that game – without the two-game [losing streak], you get what I'm saying? Now, let's go play Kansas City and see if we can give this same amount of energy, if not better than what we did today.
"It's every week from here on. Second half of the season is the most important part. You win in November, December, it carries into the postseason."
"Our confidence is week-to-week," added Brady. "We gain our confidence from practice … it's kind of like you win and you move on. Honestly. Look, we're happy we won, but we have a lot of football left."
That's certainly true, but even the longest journey begins with a first step. And this would qualify as a major step in the right direction.
When the Jets appeared to seize the momentum with a 9-point burst to take the lead at the end of the first half, New England responded with a go-ahead touchdown of their own in the final seconds. That clearly seemed to wake Brady out of his recent funk, while the Patriots, particularly the young, still-maturing defense, turned up the heat on Sanchez and the Jets in the second half.
"It's a great team win, because guys go down. That's football. Someone has to step in, whatever role they're asked to do. Guys were injured, and [other] guys came in and did their jobs," remarked Ninkovich.
"Bill challenged us last week," defensive lineman and co-captain Vince Wilfork revealed. "He said, 'There are going to be some moving parts, some guys playing challenges certain positions, some guys playing a lot of football. Roles are going to change. You have to be ready to rock and roll. It showed tonight. They handled their business.
"This is a young football team, but at the same time, they're hard workers. They're very, very, very mentally tough. We didn't back away from anything. We took his challenge and we got better."
That, in and of itself, would have been victory enough. But the final score – 37-16 – was equally satisfying for New England, because coupled with a Buffalo loss Sunday afternoon, the Patriots are now back in the top spot in the AFC East.