EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – On this Thanksgiving Weekend, New England needed to beat the stuffing out of New York, to prove – to itself, perhaps, as well as everyone else – that the Patriots' performance two weeks earlier in Nashville was nothing more than an aberration. They had time over their bye week to work on any internal issues and an extra day this past week to focus on the Jets.
Yet, when the game kicked off, it looked like the Patriots were still suffering from a holiday hangover. New York jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, aided in part by the New England's defense allowed several uncovered receivers to make big gains through the air. A missed tackle and roughing the passer call also didn't help matters.
Offensively, New England tried to get the running game established immediately, but had to fall back on its receivers to find gaping holes in the Jets' secondary in order to move the football. A penalty-filled first half slowed the game down further. Every time it seemed the Patriots were taking a considerable step forward, an infraction would push them back. Eventually, the O got it going on the ground, but it took longer than expected.
"We tried to keep good balance," center/co-captain David Andrews acknowledged. "Hurt ourselves with these penalties. We've got to clean things up this week, but I thought we did a good job for the most part."
"We had some great drives, some chunk plays," running back/co-captain James White pointed out, "offensive line blocking, Sony breaking some runs… whenever you can do that, it's always a big help.
"It was very important [to run the ball]. In the Tennessee game, we knew we didn't get the running game going at all. That was an emphasis. Everyone looked themselves in the mirror during the bye week, wanted to get the run game going. The offensive line did a great job, [as well as] receivers, tight ends, and Sony was getting downhill. We had some success with it."
Perhaps no player embodied the Patriots' lethargy of late more than tight end Rob Gronkowski. Making his first appearance since the Monday night road trip in Buffalo, Gronkowski was looking to infuse the O with some life.
"It's always good to have that guy out there. He's a warrior," added White. "He's battled through a lot of injuries. Whenever he's out there, he's a big help for us."
On New England's second third-down of the game, QB Tom Brady looked for his most reliable target, who got open along the New England sideline, but was drilled by a Jets defender as the ball arrived and it fell incomplete. Gronkowski slumped to the Patriots bench.
However, on the next series, facing a 3rd-and-12 in Jets territory, Gronkowski ran his favorite route – a seam pattern – and Brady lofted a pass to him. Gronkowski made the grab as he was hammered by a Jets defender, but held on as he fell into the end zone, helping New England knot the score at 7 apiece.
The play marked Gronkowski's first TD catch since Week 1 against Houston and seemed to galvanize the play-making tight end. Brady tried to force him the ball in the end zone on consecutive plays later in the second quarter, but both were well defended by New York and resulted in incompletions. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was called on to give New England its first lead of the day with a 34-yard field goal.
The D finally stepped up with a big play just after the two-minute warning when cornerback Stephon Gilmore picked off a deep throw by Jets backup QB Josh McCown (in for injured rookie starter Sam Darnold). However, the O couldn't escape the shadow of its goal line and had to punt. With second dwindling in the half, New York nailed a 55-yard field goal to make the score even again at intermission.
Later, in the third quarter, Gronkowski showed up again when he threw a crucial block downfield to help wide receiver Julian Edelman dive into the end zone for a score.
"He scored a touchdown, made big plays – he's the Gronk. It's always great to have him back," Edelman remarked. "He looked like he was having fun. That's awesome."
"Those are the types of plays," observed wide receiver Chris Hogan, "that add a spark to our offense."
"I don't think we had a negative play or a sack, we were just having penalties," continued Edelman. "It was hurting us. Second half, we didn't have as many. We were able to do a little more. We ended up making plays when we had to."
With New England now up 20-13, a Deatrich Wise sack of Jets QB Josh McCown in the early fourth quarter forced the Jets to punt. The Patriots then marched 80 yards in 10 plays, capped off by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Sony Michel. As White indicated earlier, the rookie running back was a bright spot for New England Sunday, putting up his most prolific numbers to date despite an injury scare in the early second half.
"Anytime you get a win on the road, it's big in this division," defensive end Trey Flowers noted. "We feel good to come on the road and bring the energy, match their intensity, and get a win."
It didn't feel like the complete victory that the team was hoping to produce. Yet, the Patriots won, the running game provided balance on offense, and Gronkowski made some positive contributions in his return. For those reasons, if nothing else, 8-3 New England should be thankful.