FOXBOROUGH – The NFL playoffs official begin the first weekend of January. But for all intents and purposed, New England's playoffs began earlier this month.
The significance of the past four games in determining playoff seeding increased the importance of the outcomes for the Patriots. All this past week, in fact, players insisted in media interviews that this regular season finale against New York was being treated by them like a playoff game.
And with good reason. By beating the Jets, the Patriots would assure themselves of no worse than the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a coveted first-round bye on Wild Card Weekend. With a little help, they could even vault to the top spot and clinch home-field advantage throughout January.
First, though, they had to beat New York, and they did in convincing fashion.
"When you play a tough opponent that plays you hard every time and lock up a two-seed – we did that, right? – that's good," WR Julian Edelman said to reporters afterward. "We've got to take everything from this and move forward and improve our team the best we possibly can to play a team that's going to be the best we've played all year, that's won a [Wild Card] playoff game."
"Essentially, it's a playoff win," declared center/co-captain David Andrews of the victory Sunday over the Jets. "You've got one less game [in the postseason]. I don't know what it's like doing it any other way. I've been very fortunate to be part of this organization."
"Guys did a good job today," remarked safety Duron Harmon, "being urgent to play, focused, getting up on them [on the scoreboard], and playing from ahead."
The game's opening drive saw New England stall near midfield when a 3rd-down pass went through RB James White's hands, but the Patriots' defense – dominant all afternoon – forced New York into a three-and-out punt.
The Patriots' O looked more in sync on their second possession, when they put together an efficient five-minute, nine-play scoring drive that covered nearly 60 yards and culminated in White's 17-yard catch-and-run for the end zone. New York responded with a 40-yard field goal that made the score 7-3 by the end of the first stanza.
Early in quarter number two, QB Tom Brady found RB Rex Burkhead open downfield and hit him in stride for an 18-yard touchdown reception. That finished off a 75-yard drive that took just three minutes. On the very next Jets play from scrimmage, DE Trey Flowers forced RB Elijah McGuire to fumble. Safety/co-captain Devin McCourty recovered the loose ball and took it down to the Jets' 8-yard line.
After missing two completely unmarked receivers on the ensuing goal-to-go possession (TE Rob Gronkowski and WR Chris Hogan), Brady finally got bailed out by a tremendous catch in the back corner of the end zone by WR Phillip Dorsett, who had a Jets defender tightly guarding him. Up 21-3 with 11 minutes to play in the first half, New England looked like a team anxious for the postseason, New York like one anxious for the offseason.
New England's short-yardage running game was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the first two quarters, exemplified by the Patriots' failure to gain a 4th-and-1 near the Jets' 35 with half a minute to play before halftime. Yet, on the next play, seldom-used DE Derek Rivers brought down Jets rookie QB Sam Darnold in the backfield to run out the clock.
New York's first drive of the second half ended with another Darnold sack, this time by Flowers. So did the Jets' second drive, only this result a strip-sack by DT Adam Butler. The loose ball bounced conveniently into LB Kyle Van Noy's hands and he raced with it 46 yards for a touchdown.
"[Darnold] had no space to make any more moves," Butler recalled of his hit on the scrambling rookie QB. "He had no choice but to throw it, and when he threw it, I just stuck my hand out there… got a piece of it and we took it to the house."
"We pride ourselves on creating those big plays and putting our whole team in position to win the game," Flowers explained. "So, anytime we can score with the offense on the sideline, it's always exciting."
The D then made its second fourth-down stop of the afternoon with about 5 minutes to play in the third quarter, giving the Patriots' offense the ball at its own 9-yard line. DT Lawrence Guy later continued to onslaught of Darnold with a 9-yard sack at the start of the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, when the Patriots had the ball, a fourth-quarter TD toss by Brady to Edelman seemed almost inhumane, making the score 38-3 and cementing the Wild Card Weekend bye.
Worst outcome for New England Sunday: A third-quarter head injury to McCourty – likely a concussion – forced him to miss most of the second half. The extra week off will benefit players like him who are dealing with any lingering ailments.
"It's nice," Edelman acknowledged. "You get a little time to heal up, to self-scout, to look at the regular season – things you did well, things you didn't do too well – and try to improve those types of things. You get a little time away from it to get ready for a battle [in the Divisional Round]. It's definitely nice to get the bye. Looking forward to next week."
The upcoming weekend off is wonderful, but the players also realize it will be for naught if they don't prepare well enough for whichever opponent winds up coming to Foxborough on Jan. 12 or 13.
"It's a playoff win," Harmon emphasized. "At the end of the day, you don't have to play [Wild Card Weekend]. You advance to the second round. We earned that, but we've got to keep it going. We've been down this road before. Keep building, trying to get better, and then see where it takes us."
"We've got to make the most of this week," added Andrews. "Get some rest, step back and look at yourself, what you can do better, and really gear up to go. This is what you play for, right here… It's going to be more and more challenging coming up this week."
"It helps us in some way to do some self-scouting and get back to work, get back to what's important," rookie running back Sony Michel pointed out. "I'm just excited we're in the position that we're in right now."