Like so many things this season, Sunday afternoon's 24-17 win over the Jets (3-3) at MetLife Stadium came as a struggle for the Patriots (4-2).
New England's first three possessions of the day in New York included two punts and a Mike Gillislee lost fumble as the scrappy Jets built a 14-0 advantage early in the second quarter.
Tom Brady also turned the ball over, his second interception in as many weeks, but the Patriots got into the turnover fun with a pretty critical Malcolm Butler interception that stemmed the Jets offensive tide and got things going the other direction for New England.
The Patriots then tied the game at 14 on a Brady-to-Gronkowski 2-yard score set up by a 42-yard reception to Brandin Cooks.
For the first time this season New England then turned the consecutive-score trick wrapped around halftime by opening the second half with a march to a 33-yard touchdown to Gronkowski. New England also found itself on the opportunistic end of a controversial replay review at the goal line, turning a potential Jets Austin Seferian-Jenkins touchdown into a turnover.
The end result was an effective if far from dominant win, a victory that propels the Patriots back into their customary spot atop the AFC East in mid-October.
As has been the case for a month-plus, there is still plenty to work on heading into next Sunday night's Super Bowl LI rematch with the Falcons in Foxborough, with Matt Ryan and Co. coming off a loss to the Dolphins. But continuing to work on problems in victory is preferable to what could have been the alternative in recent weeks.
Yet again, a win is a win.
"I wish we had done better, but we won," Brady said. "Probably a lot to learn from it.
"We'll keep at it. It's only the sixth game of the year. Still a lot to figure out."
Before moving on to Ryan, Julio Jones and the Falcons, here are some of the personnel highs and lows from the victory in the Meadowlands.
Alan Branch/Run D –* *A week earlier Branch was left home when the team traveled to Tampa, a surprising healthy-scratch for a run defense that's admittedly had its issues all season. Sunday he returned to game action and looked more like his 2016 self with his best performance of the season for a run defense that held the Jets to 3.1 yards per carry. Even better, Branch and Co. held both Elijah McGuire and Matt Forte to below 3 yards per carry each on their combined 19 attempts. Branch established himself with penetration against both the run and the pass early on. Malcolm Brown, on first look, also had one of his better games for a front that was much better.
Offensive line – It wasn't perfect but it was a big step forward for the five-man (and LaAdrian Waddle got in on some of the fun at times) line that's been the focus of plenty of criticism this season. New York had just seven sacks in the first five games and were not able to add to that total against New England. It was the first time Brady was not sacked this season and he was hit just four times. The group also opened up room for both Dion Lewis and Mike Gillislee to work, each averaging 4.4 yards per carry or better. Nice step forward for a group that needs to continue to grow together both in terms of pass protection and consistently opening up holes on the ground.
Rob Gronkowski –* *Just 10 days after the big tight end was unable to go in Tampa Bay due to a thigh injury, Gronkowksi lived up to his own prediction of being "ready to roll" against the Jets. He didn't appear to be limited in any way, running well on the way six receptions for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He continues to be a clutch playmaker in key spots every time he steps on the field this season.
Mike Gillislee – Belichick had some praise for Gillislee this week, saying that he thinks the newcomer has ability to be explosive and that those plays will hopefully starting coming to fruition. Gillislee has run better of late, topping 4 yards a carry in each of the last three weeks after failing to do so in the first three games. But Gillislee had a critical fumble in the first half of the Patriots slow start. Worse yet, it was a somewhat soft fumble, almost pushed out of his hands by linebacker Darron Lee at the Jets 22. Sure Gillislee finished the day with decent numbers with 44 yards on 10 carries, but the fumble overshadows it all.
Coaching –The collective Patriots staff just can't seem to shake the team from its early-season funk. Offensively there continues to be a search for identity. The departure from the short, timely passing game in exchange for a "lob it deep" attack is curious at best. Defensively there are too many guys on the field that can't see to find consistent ways to contribute and the inability to keep any passing attack in check is alarming. The Patriots have to be better than they are playing even if they aren't as good as the preseason expectations. It's up to the coaching staff to get the most out of this roster of talent. So far, they haven't been doing that, even in victory.
Pass defense – Playing without both Eric Rowe (groin) and Stephon Gilmore (concussion) New England fielded Jonathan Jones and Johnson Bademosi against the Jets. The results were shaky, at best, as journeyman Jets passer Josh McCown put up by far a season high with 354 yards through the air. He, like so many opponents have through six weeks, found receivers wide open all over the field at times. The coverage again struggled. Butler did have the key interception and helped force the ball free on the controversial call at the goal line. He also gave up an early touchdown to Jeremy Kerley. The pass rush also wasn't nearly consistent or good enough. The pass defense remains a work in progress that isn't showing nearly the necessary progress at this point.
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