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Nitpicks & Nitwits: Big plays required for post-season push to continue

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Just when you thought you knew these guys, an unanticipated attack on your football senses comes along to jolt us all back to reality.

How else do you explain a 3-11 team giving an 11-3 team all it can handle for 45 minutes, with the New York J-E-T-S leading your New England Patriots 13-10 heading into the 4th quarter? And then - voila! - strange things happen like Tom Brady-turning-into-the-second-coming-of-Fran Tarkenton…and 300 pound man-mountain Vince Wilfork (we're being nice, if inaccurate) becomes one of 11 lords-a-leapin' and gets a finger on a potential game-winning field goal attempt.

Both players coming through in implausible roles were crucial to the Patriots keeping alive the possibility of post-season play occurring entirely in Foxboro, and keys to a hard-fought, 17-16 win Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

Brady's 11-yard run on the first play of the 4th quarter was eerily similar to his big run against Miami a week earlier, as it set his offense up for a go-ahead score. Wilfork's ever-so-slight tip of Nick Folk's 52-yard field goal attempt with 5:21 remaining became the ultimate difference-maker, preserving a one-point lead and inspiring his offense to run out the clock with three game-clinching first downs.

That the two plays were necessary for the Patriots to maintain their status quo as an AFC favorite this season should serve as a precautionary lesson for life in the NFL that may never change. The cliché "on any given Sunday" once again rings true; rivalry and emotion still exist to the point where won-loss records hardly matter, and never underestimate the power of a man's pride. For an entire week, the Jets listened to constant tales of "you can't win," only to come up with a game plan and effort that almost pulled off an unexpected result.

Just when you thought the Patriots' juggernaut would roll through the Jersey Meadowlands on the way to the playoffs, the Jets' performance brought a needed dose of reality to New England's current plight…if you can call it that. They're good enough to be 12-3 with a division title, but not good enough yet to be crowned kings of pro football. The Patriots have players capable of making big plays, sure, but lately they've needed every one of them...and is that the true mark of a championship team? So what is the dose of reality here?

Team photographer, David Silverman, offers his best photos from the Patriots-Jets game on Sunday, December 21, 2014.

Well, it's not really complicated. There's still work to be done, and progress to be made. And the time for both is growing short…as your football senses should be telling you. It's almost playoff-time.

Line up and be accountable - Having the sort of troubles on the offensive line experienced Sunday should not be happening at this stage of the season. Three Brady sacks in the first quarter were unprecedented, even for a line that has been maligned for much of the year. Four first half sacks in total equals the output allowed over the previous eight games. Missing just one lineman, guard Dan Connolly (out with neck and knee injuries) should not have resulted in the fire drill that took place up front against the Jets. The Jets have a good (if not great) defensive front, but Josh Kline, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming all struggled, as did their line mates. The shuffling of players resembled a game of musical chairs, so expect this game film to fuel the fire for future opponents.

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Of secondary concern -** Again, missing Kyle Arrington from the game day mix shouldn't have had a big effect on the play in the secondary…but it sure seemed to play out that way. Logan Ryan lacks apparent awareness that makes his presence back there feel like a roller coaster ride, and his 2nd quarter illegal contact penalty gave NY an automatic 1st down (on a 3rd down play) and ultimately led to a Jets' field goal to take the lead. Patrick Chung, for all of his improved play to this point in the season, was burned on the Jets' 20-yard TD strike to TE Jeff Cumberland before Ryan's misdeed. And Malcolm Butler committed the sin of making contact on punt returner Jeremy Kerley in the 3rd quarter, which pulled the Jets out of a field position hole and fueled another drive for a score.

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Get off the field while you can -** Opponents' 3rd down conversions are still the Achilles Heel for this Patriots' defense. The Jets converted 5 of 13 3rd down chances during the game, not a poor number… but the NE defense is a mere 23rd in first downs allowed, and 16th in 3rd down efficiency - not exactly marks that indicate proficiency in getting off of the field. Particularly crucial in a game's stretch run, the Jets had two huge 3rd and eight conversions in the 4th quarter that ultimately led to the field goal that made it 17-16. They could have led to much worse than that…if not for Air Vince's tip of Folk's 52-yard attempt just two-and-a-half minutes later.

Nitwits of the Week

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They play for different teams, and play different positions, but Detroit's Dominic Raiola and Baltimore's Steve Smith both deserve a nod for conduct unbecoming professional athletes. Raiola intentionally stomped on the leg of Chicago defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, while Smith simply seems to have a way with his words. After a relatively poor performance in a loss to Houston, Smith lashed out at the fans…in a sort of pre-emptive strike, perhaps.

"We expect and understand and anticipate all of the negative feedback and all of the fat, lazy, sorry couch quarterbacks are going to come out," Smith said to ESPN. "We expect that and understand that. We're not going to pay attention to it."

Wow. Way to man up. Love you too, Steve, you big lug. As for Raiola's egregious error in judgment, that the Lions and the NFL seemingly tolerate his dirty play (the Patriots' Zach Moore can vouch for this) while making a playoff push of their own is akin to outright approval of such actions. He should be suspended - indefinitely - by the team, at least. But he got all of one game, from the league. And Raiola said Monday his one-step stomp was an accident.

I'm reminded of a simple, but memorable phrase from the movie "Animal House," where Dean Vernon Wormer explained to a young, misguided student named Kent Dorfman that "fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son." It's no way to go through a football season, either.

A Capital Idea?

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While we didn't see too much of Michael Vick Sunday on the field in New York…since he was primarily on the sidelines for the New York Jets…it seems he already has it in his mind that we'll see more of him elsewhere for next season.

Vick told Newsday last week he's a fan of potential #1 draft pick Marcus Mariota from Oregon, since he was a former #1 pick himself…and he learned the feeling was apparently mutual. But it's highly unlikely the two would be teammates in New York for next season, especially with Vick on a one-year deal that expires in another week. Not to mention he's also 35 years old, which might preclude some (all?) teams from building around him.

"I can be the face of any franchise," Vick told Newsday. "Hopefully there will be an opportunity for me in 2015. And that's what I'm looking forward to." Washington is apparently very much on his radar, possibly to reunite with wide receiver DeSean Jackson from their days together in Philadelphia.

"That's home. That's home for me. Don't get me excited," Vick said about a potential move to DC. And he and Jackson have had discussions about a move. "Being honest, yeah, we talked about it once I signed…we were just trying to position ourselves to be together again, but it didn't work out."

Considering the Redskins may be ready to move on from Robert Griffin III in the off-season, there's likely to be an opening at the QB position in the nation's capital. But an opening for 35-year-old Michael Vick? Apparently, he's game.

"I'm open to playing for anybody that wants to win,'' Vick said to Newsday. "But obviously, going back home, I mean, that'll be a dream come true…I would hate to get my hopes up for something that wouldn't happen. So I can't even think about it right now.''

It's hard to believe Washington would be thinking about that right now, as well.

From Worst to First?

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It's been a dismal season for the NFC South, to be sure. Even so, someone is going to win the division…and reach the post-season as the #4 seed in the NFC playoffs. We'll save the argument for re-seeding or Wild Card teams deserving home games over division champs for another day.

As bad as the play has been, and as flawed as New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay have appeared to be…keep in mind that just a few short years ago, the now-powerhouse NFC West Division was largely in the same position as the South now resides.

It hasn't been that long ago…but in 2010 the West Division (Arizona, Seattle, San Francisco, St. Louis) was in largely the same, sad sack shape as the South now finds itself. The West champ was 7-9 Seattle - the first division winner with a losing record in modern NFL history. And how long did it take for the Seahawks to become "respectable?" Not long…they did win their first playoff game that season, before morphing into a Super Bowl winner in 2013.

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You can make an argument for the West now being the best - or certainly, one of the best - divisions in pro football this season. It doesn't necessarily mean the South is on its way to fielding a Super Bowl winner anytime soon, but consider the parallels - coaching and staff changes are undoubtedly on the way, as they were in the West in 2010…rosters have had numerous changes (Tampa leads the NFL in transactions with 98) and Pete Carroll (with GM John Schneider) purged their personnel list almost weekly when starting in Seattle…and the division has ostensibly better talent at QB (Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan) than did the West in '10 (Sam Bradford, Matt Hasselbeck, Alex Smith).

Suffice to say - what comes around, goes around in the NFL. Parity, in the form of salary caps, draft opportunities, free agency and good, old-fashioned competitive nature will see to it that what goes down…must eventually come back up. Find a team that has a coach and GM who work well together - or are the same person - managing the cap and discovering roster depth, and you'll find a team on the rise.

Just like you've had in New England for the past 15 years, give or take.

Gronk being Gronk

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Show of hands here…how many of us, at some point in time, have wished we could be Rob Gronkowski? Or at the very least, experience what it's like to be Gronk? Yup, thought so.

The uber-popular Patriots tight end had another "only Gronk" moment this past week. He appeared as a celebrity judge on Bravo's Top Chef Boston and told hostess Padma Lakshmi that because of his big appetite and Polish heritage, he really wanted the chefs to cook a sausage.

"I need a big sausage," was what Gronkowski said. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Lakshmi replied, "me too."

Nervous laughter followed the suggestive innuendo, but give Gronk credit. He had the perfect reply in catching her, ahem, forward pass. "Honey, don't embarrass me," was Gronkowski's quick quip.

Living a day in the life of Rob Gronkowski has definitely moved up the ladder on the wish list of things to do, even if it's in the next lifetime.

*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" during the season on Patriots.com Radio for a 14th year - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball for the past 26 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *

Follow him on Twitter - @JRbroadcaster

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