The New England Patriots take on the New York Jets in a regular season game at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, December 21, 2014.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It was a day devoid of emotion from the start.
The gigantic stadium in the middle of the Jersey swamps was strangely empty for much of the pre-game. Its 80,000 cold, grey seats matching the wintry skies overhead.
The parking lots were devoid of their usual bustling, raucous crowds. The press box was eerily quiet, too, like a library. No one, it seemed, was excited about the game. Even those playing it. When the game finally kicked off, players on both sides seemed disinterested. Punt and punt and punt ended the first several series.
After finally going up 7-0 on a Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski touchdown pass, New England fell behind 10-7 at the half, then 13-7 into the second half.
New England knew what was at stake. Sure, they already had a playoff ticket punched, but they needed a win to stay atop the AFC playoff seeding and maintain homefield advantage throughout the postseason. That in itself had to be enough, you would think, to motivate them in the second half.
Shane Vereen's insertion into the offense in the second half sparked a surge in the Patriots, however. Then Jamie Collins' interception of Jets QB Geno Smith gave New England the opportunity to reclaim the lead on a Jonas Gray touchdown plunge in the early fourth.
When Brady was intercepted a short time later in Patriots territory, it was the defense again coming to the rescue, as it has so often this season. Dont'a Hightower sacked Smith on 3rd down, forcing a Nick Folk field goal that was partially blocked by Vince Wilfork. The Patriots found themselves clinging precariously to a 17-16 lead.
On the ensuing possession, Danny Amendola, increasing his workload in the wake of Julian Edelman's concussion, came up with a huge 3rd-and-7 screen pass that made the first down by a blade of artificial turf.
"Huge play, Jamie Collins. Huge interception," Amendola said later. "We've got a great defense. Those guys play so hard. We go against them every day. I'm really excited to watch them make plays."
"Yeah, it's huge. It's December. These games are going to be hard, tough, and most of them are going to come down to two or three plays at the end of the game," observed safety/co-captain Devin McCourty. "So, that was big: sacks, blocking a field goal by 'Air' Vince. We've got to do those things. For the rest of the season, nothing's going to be easy."
But somehow, each week, no matter who it is, someone on offense, defense, or special teams comes up with a play when a play is needed. Even when there wasn't much energy in the stadium from which to draw.
"I think it gives you confidence going forward," McCourty added. "It gives you a mentality of winning football, We're not going to be in any games we think we can't win. Every player on the field has to have that mentality and I think we had that today."
"It comes down to a couple of plays here and there," remarked DE Rob Ninkovich. "Offensively, we were able to make a couple of plays that won us the game, and defensively, same thing. We knew this game was going to be what it was. You've got to give them credit for some of the things they were able to do against us, but… a win's a win. We'll take it."
"The Jets are a good team," Amendola concluded. "They play really hard, they're well-coached, got great players, it's a division battle. It was a tough one today. To get a win here is great. We're excited to go back to Foxborough and get ready for next week."
They'll do so in the confidence of knowing they've secured a first-round bye in the playoffs.