Exactly one year ago, the New England Patriots were 6-2 halfway through their 2010 campaign and were facing a fierce AFC rival on their home turf in the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were coming off an ugly 34-14 loss to the Browns and many people were doubting the future of the team. Before tonight's game against the New York Jets, I stated that the Patriots had a chance to get a defining victory similar to that very one exactly a year ago, and that's exactly what they did.
Although the first few plays of the Jets' opening drive made it look like it might be a long night for the Patriots defense, the unit regrouped in the red zone and the Nick Folk of the Jets missed a chip shot field goal.
The Patriots took back over on offense and marched down the field, but were ultimately held to a 50 yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Following that drive, the Patriots' defense really stiffened. On the day, the Jets were able to run the ball with some success, but the Patriots never allowed the big run.
But the real story of the day was the Patriots' pass defense. The Patriots produced five sacks on the day, with 4.5 of those coming from defensive end Andre Carter, who break a team regular season record for most sacks in a game. He came close to several more as well (including one intentional grounding by Sanchez that clearly would have been a sack). Carter manhandled D'Brickishaw Ferguson all day and was constantly disrupting the passing rhythm of the Jets.
Not everything was perfect for the Patriots in the first half. The team managed to move the ball early on, but could only come away with two field goals. Late in the second quarter, pinned deep in their own territory, Jamaal Westerman of the Jets produced a great pass rush and forced Tom Brady to throw the ball to nowhere, causing an intentional grounding and safety. The Jets then took the ball and marched straight down the field in seven plays, with the drive being capped off with a two yard Mark Sanchez quarterback draw (didn't look scripted).
Down 9-6 with less than two minutes to go in the first half, it was all Patriots from that point on. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was having his fair share of struggles - making some questionable reads and errant throws. But something changed at that point.
With the Patriots pressed for time, the team played out of the no huddle. Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski got in a groove on the drive, with Brady finding Gronk on completions of 12 and 23. Three plays after the 23 yarder, Brady found Gronkowski again on an 18 yard throw to the middle of the end zone and the Patriots were up 13-9 going into the half.
Early in the third quarter, a muffed punt by Joe McKnight of the Jets gave the Patriots an easy three points. When the Jets finally got the ball back, Rob Ninkovich intercepted a tipped Sanchez pass and on the team's ensuing drive, the Patriots turned back to the no huddle and wore down the Jets defense with quick runs and completions. On a third and three from the Jets' 5, Brady found Gronkowski for the duo's second touchdown connection of the game to make the score 23-9.
The Jets weren't quite done yet - they responded nicely to the Patriots touchdown drive with one of their own, a ten play drive that was capped off with a Sanchez to Plaxico Burress seven yard touchdown.
Yet once again, similar to that Sunday night game in Pittsburgh last year, Tom Brady and the Patriots offense responded. The Patriots chewed up nearly seven fourth quarter minutes on a 13 play, 84 yard drive. The Patriots didn't have much going for them on the ground up to that point, but running back Danny Woodhead was able to get a little something going on this drive. Brady mixed up his throws, finding Welker three times, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez once a piece and Deion Branch twice. The drive was capped off with a beautiful Brady to Branch eight yard touchdown.
Up 30-16, the Jets were down, but not out. But on a second and 20 from their own ten, the Jets made their fatal mistake. Mark Sanchez looked for running back LaDainian Tomlinson on a check down route, but didn't account for Rob Ninkovich, who read the play. Ninkovich grabbed his second interception of the day and trotted into the end zone to give the Patriots a 37-16 lead.
After a couple of more defensive stands by the Patriots, the team had their most important victory of the season in hand.
We know that the 2011 Patriots are far from a perfect team. But tonight showed us that this team is very resilient. The defensive backfield is on its last hinges, and an undisclosed arm/shoulder injury to Devin McCourty can only serve to make things worse. Nonetheless, the Patriots showed that they can win with effort, determination, and grit. Bill Belichick has once again showed that he can make a winning defense out of street players. Truly unbelievable to watch. When Julian Edelman took the field as a cornerback on the last drive of the game, it just couldn't help but remind you of the Troy Brown and Earthwind Moreland days of 2004.
The Patriots are now 6-3 and in sole possession of first place in the AFC East. They're currently a half game behind the Steelers and Texans for the best record in the AFC, but they have gotten through the most difficult part of their schedule, and now will face the NFL's easiest remaining schedule. There's no reason to think that this team can't finish 12-4 or 11-5, which very well could be good enough for a bye in the wacky field that is the AFC this season.