Monday, October 26, 2015

Patriots Take Control Late, Ground Jets In Street Fight

Patriots' receiver Danny Amendola scores the go ahead touchdown against the New York Jets

What do you get when you pit the number one offense in the National Football League against the top-rated defense?

On Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, you got the two best teams in the American Football Conference slugging it out in an old fashioned street fight, the New England Patriots proving once again that they have too many weapons to keep them down for a full sixty minutes, and the New York Jets serving notice that they aren't backing down to anyone.

The New York Jets? One of the two best teams in the AFC?

It's the truth. Name another team in the conference that is head and shoulders above them. Denver? The Jets' defense would absolutely pulverize Peyton Manning, and it's a sorry state of affairs for the Broncos when their franchise quarterback would get outplayed by a career journeyman like Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Colts? They've already picked off Andrew Luck three times and beat his Colts at Indianapolis. The Bengals have a good team but their signature win of the season was beating the obviously overrated Seahawks in overtime at Cincinnati, with their other five victims have a combined record of 11-22 - and with their defense giving up an obscene 4.9 yards per rush, the Jets would run the ball right down their throats.

So, yeah. Why not? Or to take a phrase from Tedy Bruschi usually reserved for the Patriots, "If not them, then who?"

The Patriots dodged a bullet on Sunday afternoon, one that could have hit home had Jets' wide receiver Brandon Marshall not channelled his inner-Wes Welker and dropped a potential dagger at the most crucial of moments, had running back Chris Ivory not tweaked a hammy on the first play of the game, and had coach Todd Bowles bothered to look at the clock every now and then.

Because the New York Jets' offense was having its way with the New England Patriots' defense as it was, and if the hard-charging Ivory been at full gallop, had Marshall been able to squeeze a catchable low and outside fast ball from Fitzpatrick in the end zone, and had Bowles had the presence of mind to use his time outs to save the 45 seconds that needlessly ticked off the clock after the two minute warning, Patriots' fans might have been lamenting a loss today...

On the flip side, had the Patriots receivers not dropped a combined eleven passes, none of that other stuff would have mattered. But none of those things happened.

Instead, trailing by four points with eleven minutes remaining in the game, and facing a third and seventeen from their own 27 yard line, the Patriots looked to be the latest victim of the stingy Jets' defense that had not allowed a 200 yard passer in their last three contests and had not allowed more than 231 yards in total offense in the same span...

...but quarterback Tom Brady reared back and fired a rocket at receiver Julian Edelman for a first down, in the same instant finally igniting the Patriots' boiler - working through a series of dropped balls that doomed several earlier possessions as New England pulled away from the game Jets when it counted for a 30-23 victory in Foxborough.

Brady kept his cool as one ball after another hit the field turf at Gillette Stadium - six of the eleven drops coming via the rusty mitts of wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who had just been activated from the PUP list and was seeing his first action since February - with the rest split between stalwarts Julian Edelman, tight end Rob Gronkowski and passing back James White.

But while those three took turns playing hot potato with Brady's offerings, wide receiver Danny Amendola held the fort with clutch catch after clutch catch.

Amendola's eight catch, 86 yard effort came on the heels of his seven catch 105 yard gem in Indianapolis last Sunday night, the second consecutive week that the oft-maligned receiver has come through in the clutch to help jump start the Patriots' offense - this time breaking out his high-wire act to haul down a couple of high throws, and displaying his usual toughness in gathering in crossers over the middle.

So imagine what Brady's stat line - not to mention the final score - would have looked like without the drops, as Brady completed 34 of 54 passes on the day for 355 yards and two fourth quarter touchdowns as it was, far and away the best numbers put up on the Jets' defense this season, dropping New York from the top spot in pass defense to fourth in the space of ten minutes and change.

In fact, Brady's performance equaled the passing yardage total that the Jets had surrendered in the past two games combined, and was just 100 yards short of matching the combined total from New Yorks' last three games - a testament both to the miserly oppression of the Jets' defense and to Brady's brilliance.

What makes these numbers even more amazing is that Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels completely abandoned the running game, which allowed the Jets' pass rushers to pin their ears back and come after Brady, but the combination of Brady's new-found elusiveness and the solid pass protection from his patchwork offensive line kept the future first-ballot hall of fame quarterback upright most of the game.

"He suckered us," former Patriot and now New York Jets' cornerback Darrelle Revis said after the game. Then without elaborating, "We fought hard in the third quarter, but the big play was the third and seventeen. That changed the momentum, and then they made more plays than we did."

The Patriots never really had the momentum before that instant, even though holding a three-point advantage a halftime, courtesy of two Stephen Gostkowski field goals and a Brady one yard dive that countered the Jets' field goal and a Jeremy Kerley scoring reception - and not even after Gostkowski made it a six point lead just into the second half, as a short scoring toss from Fitzpatrick to Ivory wiped out that tenuous lead, then Jets's kicker Nick Folk made it a four point game.

It was then that the Patriots went to the four minute offense, making a concerted effort not only to score, but to do so while chewing up clock - or, in fact, doing exactly to the Jets defense as their offense had been doing to the Patriots' defense all game long.

After Edelman had miraculously converted the third and seventeen, Brady turned to Rob Gronkowski, who caught three consecutive passes, the second of which a classic Gronk moment, catching a short out to the left flat then dragging Jets' safety Marcus Gilchrist for the final 10 of his 23 yard reception, setting up Amendola's twisting touchdown at the goal line three plays later to give the Patriots a three point lead....

...then riding Amendola down the field on their ensuing possession, including the aforementioned circus move that gave New England a first down in Jets' territory, his three catches on that final drive setting up Gronkowski, who took a pass from Brady at the then and rumbled in untouched for the eventual dagger.

Things were not quite settled yet, however, and after the Jets got to within seven on another Folk field goal, Folk executed a perfect onside kick that slipped through the legs of linebacker Jamie Collins and was recovered by Marshall, giving the Jets a first down at midfield, but with just 14 seconds left because of poor time management by the Jets, who should have been calling timeouts to preserve the clock on New Englands' last drive.

In the end, the Jets did manage to hold New England to their lowest total yardage mark of the season, as well as their lowest number of first downs and rushing yards, though the Patriots essentially did that to themselves by calling only five rushing plays the entire game - while the defense actually held the Jets' offense to their lowest total yardage output in the last three weeks while forcing them into four three-and-outs.

Of course, it didn't seem that way throughout the first three quarters as the Patriots' defense struggled to get off the field on third down - and while Fitzpatrick and the Jets' offense did convert eight of fourteen third down opportunities, none of those came in the critical fourth quarter as the defense stiffened and allowed just two field goals.

With the win, undefeated New England created a wide gap in the AFC East division race, being now two games up on the Jets plus owning the early tie-breaker in the home-and-home series gives the Patriots the equivalent of a three- game bulge before the team even reach the halfway mark of the season.

That comes as New England finishes up their current three-game homestand, where they have the opportunity to raise their record to 8-0 should they be able to handle first the Dolphins and then the Redskins in the next two weeks, both at Gillette - but things could have looked much different had the Patriots not found their stride on both sides of the ball late against the Jets.

It wasn't perfect by any means, and you can thank Bowles and the Jets for some of that, but like Revis said, the Patriots made a few more plays than New York did - something that they have done in crunch time so many times that everyone knows what's coming, and on Sunday the Jets knew it was coming, but like so many Patriots' foes before them, they were powerless to do anything about it.

The New York Jets one of the two best teams in the conference? You bet, but they are still a ways from being the best.