FOXBOROUGH – This game unfolded almost exactly as many of us expected.
The New York Jets came to town with a 4-1 record, a formidable front seven, and devastating rushing attack, and absolutely no fear of the unbeaten New England Patriots.
Equally confident, the Patriots came out swinging. On the second play of the game, the New England defense landed a punch that knocked New York to the mat. Defensive end Chandler Jones's strip-sack of Jets QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was recovered by linebacker Dont'a Hightower at the Jets' 19-yard line.
But the Jets' defense responded with a left hook of its own, dropping Tom Brady for a 6-yard loss on 3rd-and-5, forcing a field goal.
After that, New York's offense seemed to control the game, with Fitzpatrick making good decisions and throws with the football and leading his team on a pair of sustained scoring drives to go up 10-3.
Defensive end/co-captain Rob Ninkovich was doing his best to disrupt Fitzpatrick by batting down several passes that could easily have been picked off by him or other Patriots defenders. All of them hit the ground, however.
"Anytime the ball comes out quick, the trajectory is lower, so, you can get your hands on the ball," Ninkovich explained later. "You just have to obviously read the quarterback, get your hands up and match the throwing arm. So coming into this week, they didn't have many sacks. They only had two on the year, so you knew that the ball was coming out quick. They wanted to have quick hidden routes, and as a front, you get your hands up, knock passes down. I should've caught a couple of them, Jeez."
The Patriots were also fortunate that New York ball carrier Chris Ivory seemed to suffer a hamstring problem on the game's first play and was limited in his effectiveness throughout the first half. Ivory later contributed more in the second half, including a touchdown catch that put the Jets back on top 17-16 in the third quarter.
On the other side, New England also dropped all pretense of a running game by rushing the ball just nine times all afternoon. Brady was the team's leading rusher with 15-yards and a touchdown on a QB sneak. The Patriots were without top back Dion Lewis (abdomen injury) and against that stout front of New York, the plan was to attack the Jets' secondary through the air.
"We wanted to play fast, to slow them down, tire them down, by getting in and out of the huddle and going quickly," wide receiver Danny Amendola revealed.
"Yeah, they have a pretty good run defense," explained head coach Bill Belichick. "We felt like we had good matchups throwing the ball, so we tried to take advantage of those matchups. The runs that we ran, we didn't get a lot out of."
Brady and the offense struggled at times due to a season-high eight dropped passes, most by newly-activated Brandon LaFell. Though it was soggy and damp during pregame warmups, the weather cleared after kickoff and couldn't be used as an excuse for the seemingly slippery football. The Jets could have put the game in serious jeopardy for New England early in the fourth quarter, but WR Brandon Marshall dropped a sure touchdown, forcing the Jets to kick a field goal to go up 20-16.
Then, when Brady needed to gain big chunks of yardage and keep drives alive, he looked to Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, who combined for 19 catches and just shy of 200 yards receiving.
Amendola's go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter was compounded by Gronkowski's touchdown catch-and-run on the next possession. But even with a 30-20 lead with barely a minute to go, the Patriots couldn't count out the Jets. New York kicked a 55-yard field goal with 23 seconds remaining, then went for an onside kickoff.
As was the theme for the day, the ball went through Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins' hands and New York recovered with one last gasp at tying the game with a touchdown.
Yet with no timeouts left, the Jets committed a penalty with one second remaining as Fitzpatrick snapped and spiked the ball, thus forcing a 10-second runoff of the clock and ending the game. Even in defeat, the Jets proved they could go toe-to-toe with New England for 12 rounds.
"The Jets always come to play, so, we knew we were in for a battle for four quarters, and that's what we got," Amendola added. "I thought we played well enough to win the game. There's definitely room for improvement across the board, especially me."
Perhaps it says more about the Patriots as a team, though, that they were able to pull out a win when they clearly weren't at their best on either side of the ball.
"That's exactly it: find a way to win, man," said cornerback Logan Ryan. "It's not going to be perfect. The Jets are a good team. They always play us well… and we were up for the challenge."
"We're a very mentally tough team," noted Ninkovich. "We go into these games, we understand that you've got to play four quarters and you've got to stick to the plan. Again, I think just believing in ourselves and knowing that we continue to fight, continue to play hard. At the end of the game, we're going to come out victorious as long as we continue to play hard, believe in each other, and I think that our offense did a great job at the end there scoring."
This was easily the toughest test the Patriots have had all season, and it comes at an inconvenient time, as they must now heal up quickly and be ready to suit up again on Thursday night to host the Miami Dolphins.