It wasn't pretty by any stretch. But the Patriots still managed to find a way to win against the Jets on Sunday. And even though it was ugly, there were still positives to be found.
Sure, a win is a win and the Pats are now 4-3 after closing out the Jets at the end of the fourth quarter and in the extra session. But upon examining how they got to that point, blowing yet another double-digit, fourth quarter lead, you are excused if you feel any chunks rising up in your gullets.
The Pats did make enough plays to win the game late. The offense put together two highly efficient scoring drives, one to tie and the second to win, when it needed to. And the defense made a big play to guarantee the victory when it was absolutely necessary.
But still, consider the following:
- In the first half, the Jets threw an interception, took a safety and gave the ball back to the Pats after forcing a punt thanks to a face mask penalty during the kick. The Pats went three-and-out after all three of those breaks.
- With a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, the Pats made one first down, then ran three more plays and punted. The drive was six plays, went for 24 yards and took just over three minutes off the clock.
- With a three point lead at the 5:44 mark of the fourth quarter, the Pats took a 10-yard penalty then went three-and-out, taking just 1:25 off the clock.
- With the game tied at 23 and 2:06 on the clock, the Pats fumbled a kickoff.
- Mark Sanchez, the league's 30th rated passer, threw for the most yards (328) he's had in 19 games, had the best passer rating (90.3) he's had in nine games and completed nine passes for 15 or more yards, the most he's had in a game in his entire career. He came into the game having completed 49.7 percent of his passes for the season but completed 68.2 percent against the Pats.
"At the end, we made more plays to win the game. That's the only thing that matters," said Vince Wilfork afterward.
He's right. And as previously mentioned, there were some definite positives and excellent individual accomplishments to take away from this one.
But imagine what may happen against a team that's actually good and well coached on offense and a QB who is better than Sanchez (or Russell Wilson for that matter).
So again, if you're feeling less than elated about Sunday's win, it's quite all right.
So with that, let's get to this week's report card.
It wasn't Brady's best game, though it could have been worse if he hadn't been able to erupt on those final two drives. Too often, he looked bewildered (at one point completely airing out anyone within earshot on the sideline following yet another failed drive), in part because of the looks he was seeing in the Jets' defense and also from the continuing lack of feel in the play calling. In Josh McDaniels' crusade to figure out what he has that works best, Brady doesn't seem to be able to get into any kind of real rhythm. It almost feels like the incredible diversity of skill sets on the Pats' offense is hurting it. McDaniels hasn't been able to find the right kind of balance to his play calling really at all since the Week 1 win over Tennessee (perhaps not coincidentally, the last time all of the Pats' vast array of weapons were healthy at the same time) and Brady is clearly suffering from it. That's not to absolve him of all blame. There were some throws that Brady certainly would like to have back. The deep sideline pass to Rob Gronkowski on that miserable fourth quarter series which led to the Jets tying the game was a gift interception that Jets corner Antonio Cromartie could have had with his eyes closed were his hands not made of cement. But despite the lack of success in late game situations over the past couple of seasons, Brady played his best when it mattered most. His laced the first pass of the game-tying series to Gronk over the middle for 15 yards and it just felt different than almost any other throw he made all day. Brady would go on to complete four out of five passes for 54 yards on that march, then went 5-of-8 for 41 more on the game winning march in OT. It was vintage Brady and not a moment too late. When the Pats offense figures out what ails them, whether it be execution or lack of health or the position of the moon or whatever, Brady's late game heroics in this game provided a sense of relief and optimism going forward.
Running Backs: 3.5
The Pats didn't completely scrap the run the way they did against the Seahawks, calling for 31 run plays and gaining 131 yards on the ground, good for 4.2 yards per attempt. But it still didn't feel consistent enough. The Jets didn't bite on playing a lot of nickel and inviting the Pats to trample them, a la Buffalo and Denver, and the fact that starting guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly were both missing could have influenced things in a negative way. But it still felt like the Pats could have done more on the ground than they did, particularly against a defense that came in allowing more than 150 yards per game on the ground. As clutch as Danny Woodhead was in the two-minute drill late, there were a couple of times when he was given the ball in power sets and that's just never a good decision, especially when you have a bruiser like Stevan Ridley on your team. Ridley was decent, showing all of his best traits at certain points but looking tentative in others. Ridley hasn't fumbled since that one against the Broncos, but he hasn't looked quite the same since then either. And Shane Vereen finally got some legit time thanks to the injury to Brandon Bolden, including starting the game, and ripped off 49 yards on eight attempts. These guys were pretty good. But it felt like they could have been a lot better had there been more of a commitment to stick with them.
Wide Receivers: 3
What is it with Brandon Lloyd? It's hard to imagine many receivers making more highlight reel catches than he does, whether it's a full on dive or a perfect tiptoe and foot drag on the sideline. But when the ball is right on his hands or numbers, he tends to well, not catch it. Brady should have had three long completions to Lloyd in this game (or at least two; the third would have been a very good catch) but Lloyd dropped them all. The first one, a deep in cut or post, hit him between the ocho and the cinco and clanged harmlessly to the turf as he unnecessarily slid despite having beaten his man by a step and a half. And he committed an offensive pass interference to start that ugly, fourth quarter drive, burying the team in a 1st and 20 situation that ultimately got the Pats booed off the field. Lloyd has been spectacular at times this season and completely ordinary in others. So where is the middle ground? He was targeted eight times on Sunday and made one catch for six yards. Think about that for a second. Wes Welker was a little more quiet than usual but was still solid, catching six passes for 66 yards and turning a couple of them into big plays. And how great was it to see Deion Branch make a big, first down grab late in the game? Having him around and out there when it matters most is a comfort.
Tight Ends: 4
It's somewhat painful to watch Aaron Hernandez at this point. He's clearly not healthy and even walking back to the huddle looks like it hurts. He made five catches for 54 yards and every last iota of each felt like it could be the end of the game for him. On a third quarter fade in the end zone, Brady did throw it a little high but Hernandez, who was wide open, couldn't get to it. It's a play he makes in his sleep when healthy and served as proof that he may have come back too soon from his ankle injury. It's doubtful the Pats will rest him this week against the Rams with the bye week looming. But he sure could use the extra time. And then there is Gronk, also playing hurt but still so, so valuable. The Jets devoted a healthy portion of their offseason retooling to defending Gronk yet he still mostly had his way with them, posting his first multi-TD game of the season and finishing with six grabs for 78 yards. His first TD was gorgeous; a diving, fingertip catch in the corner on a perfectly designed out and fade pattern. And he made a couple of big snares as the Pats were coming back late. The bye week coming up after this week's game in London will be big for a lot of this team, few more so than the Pats two big guns at tight end.
Offensive Line: 3
Give credit to this group. Without Mankins and Connolly, who was felled by a stomach issue the morning of the game, the O-line was pretty good anyway, with sub guards Donald Thomas and Nick McDonald mostly holding their own despite some issues. Luckily for the Pats, Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer kept the peace on the ends and Brady was only sacked once and hit just two other times. The Jets were aggressive up front, particularly in the middle and that may have contributed to the Pats never really looking comfortable running the ball. Also, in Brady's defense, that near pick on the deep throw to Gronk in the fourth quarter was in part forced by McDonald getting smoked right off the snap and flushing Brady out to his right. Connolly should be back for the London game but Mankins, who has been banged up all year and had already missed a game before Sunday may well stay sidelined through the bye. The Pats were OK without him but they need him healthy if they want to go anywhere.
Defensive Line: 4
Not as much pressure from this group as you would like especially considering the hideousness of the secondary. But it was a pretty good effort marked by a couple of huge plays by the increasingly valuable Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich is truly a big play guy. He saved the Pats against Denver with his strip of Willis McGahee and his combo sack with Jermaine Cunningham on Sanchez in overtime allowed him to knock the ball free and end the game. If you had Ninkovich down as the Pats most valuable defensive player coming into the season, we should head out to play Keno or something. The guy has been a beast and you could make the argument that the Pats would have at least one fewer win this season without him. Cunningham was very aggressive and active all day and looked like he was on the cusp of getting to Sanchez more than once before he finally did on that last play. He forced a sack that Kyle Love got credit for earlier on and again showed that he's figured something out since his disappearing act of last season. Love and Vince Wilfork benefited from the Jets incomprehensible insistence on running the ball up the middle all day to the tune of just 3.2 yards per attempt, and Wilfork was instrumental in the botched handoff from Sanchez to Shonn Greene that turned into that safety. And Chandler Jones was pretty much neutralized for the first time this season. Just a blip on the radar for him, most likely.
A good deal of Sanchez's yardage total came from dump offs to Shonn Greene and intermediate throws to tight end Dustin Keller. It's incumbent on the linebackers to handle stuff like that but neither Jerod Mayo nor Brandon Spikes, each of whom had decent games, is any good in pass coverage (they fit right in with the rest of this defense in that regard). Keller, in particular, was deadly. He caught all seven of the passes thrown his way and with the exception of his TD, which was actually pretty well covered, was wide open on all of them. He made one sideline catch on which there wasn't a Patriot within 20 yards of him. Clearly, the issues facing the secondary in defending the pass have trickled down to a point with the linebackers. Keller was the only true, legit threat in the Jets passing game coming into Sunday and he did whatever he wanted all day. Big ups to Dont'a Hightower for getting to Sanchez on the Jets final play of regulation, a third down sack that forced the Jets to kick a field goal following Devin McCourty's fumbled kickoff, which allowed the Pats to stay in the game. A first down on that play probably would have ended it.
Defensive Backs: 1
It's reached the point where bothering to write this portion of the report card or even taking the time to assign a score isn't necessary. But here goes anyway. Kyle Arrington was once this team's best corner; now, he's arguably its worst. Alfozo Dennard had an interception but it came on a play where he let the receiver go, the safety naturally didn't come over to help and he had to sprint back 25 yards to make the play that was only possible because Sanchez underthrew his receiver even though there was no one within 10 yards of him. McCourty played safety and was stationed 30 or more yards from the line of scrimmage on every play, not allowing him the chance to give anything up or make any plays either. And Ras-I Dowling, who got hurt and left in the fourth quarter (can you believe it???), did break up a pass but was flagged twice, beaten countless other times by whoever he was attempting to cover and made it overwhelmingly obvious why he's the latest DB to be drafted with a second round pick only to be banished barely into his second season (hello, Darius Butler and Terrence Wheatley!). No matter what the issues are, whether its the schemes, the inability of the coaches to develop any defensive backs or just a lack of intelligence, the fact that this group has looked as helpless as it has against two of the three worst QB's (statistically) in the NFL in consecutive weeks is massively troubling. It's been said before in this space, but here it is again: any team that doesn't throw on this secondary as much as it possibly can at all times is irretrievably stupid.
Special Teams/Intangibles/Coaching: 3
If not for McCourty's hellacious fumble, it would have been a near perfect day for the special teams. He had a 104-yard return for a TD that was as impressive as it was shocking given that the Pats never seem to even try on kick returns. It was the second longest kick return in team history and proved to be huge in the final outcome. Our man Zoltan Mesko had a huge game, booming four of his six punts inside the 20 and two inside the 10.
But it was Stephen Gostkowski who should share the game ball with Ninkovich. He drilled both the game tying and game winning field goals from 43 and 48 yards, respectively. Both kicks were absolute no-doubters and given the issues Gostkowski had earlier in the season, the confidence and assurance he showed in making both had to please Pats fans in a major way.
As far as the coaching goes, the fact that the Pats faced the Jets and their brutally coached offense (Pats fans take note: if you really want to see bad play calling, watch the Jets again some day. They are horribly coached on that side of the ball) made Bill Belichick and staff look better. But boy, were there some more issues.
Start with two plays on the Jets opening drive on which the Pats had just 10 men on the field, once on a TD run. How can that happen?
The defense, now one more game into its fourth straight season of being below average at best, shows few, if any, signs of getting better or, perhaps worse, changing at all. It's safe to assume that Belichick and his defensive staff know far more about what's really going on there than anyone else. But the results, including an astonishing six more plays of 20 or more yards against a QB as bad as Sanchez, speak volumes.
And again, as mentioned above, the play calling on offense was very puzzling at times. It's clear that McDaniels is searching. But he doesn't seem to want to commit to anything (except for last week in Seattle when Brady threw 58 times despite leading throughout). And there were a couple more trick plays, neither of which worked to no one's surprise. The Patriots have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, the two best tight ends in the league and the best slot receiver in the league. They also have multiple running backs who have proven that if you keep feeding them the ball, they will produce. Yet none of these assets were used with any real consistency.
You could argue that the tight ends were the focal point on Sunday. But it all feels a little bit too fancy, too over thought. Sure, it's important to be a more diverse offense given how the past two seasons have ended. And it is only October in a lousy division. Still, whether it's as simple as lack of execution, which McDaniels and Brady insist upon, or something more, the Pats had best figure it out soon.