One Sunday ago, the New England Patriots entered the fourth quarter clinging to a 13-10 lead against a San Francisco 49ers team well-entrenched in the NFC West’s basement.
And this Sunday, the 13-10 scoreboard remained the same against a New York Jets team that stood nearly as close to the concrete in the AFC East.
The Jets, with seven losses on the season heading into the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff, did not look inferior to the eight-win Patriots early on. In fact, through the better part of three frames, they looked superior to their familiar foe residing up Interstate 95.
But a 41-yard field goal by a struggling kicker, a fourth-and-4 conversion by a third-year running back, an eight-yard touchdown catch by a rookie receiver, and a strip-sack by a veteran defensive end would be the difference over the final 15 minutes on Sunday, as the Patriots held off the Jets by a score of 22-17 at MetLife Stadium.
Here’s a look at the numbers behind what transpired.
Sunday marked the first time that Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who suffered a back injury in the first half and was ruled out for the rest of the game, went without a catch versus Jets. The four-time first-team All-Pro had 54 catches for 655 yards and six touchdowns in his first 10 career meetings with New York.
After three consecutive games without a takeaway, and only one in the last five games, the Patriots’ defense rediscovered the football versus the Jets. Cornerback Malcolm Butler forced and recovered a fumble versus Jets wideout Robby Anderson with under 10 minutes to go before halftime, and defensive end Chris Long strip-sacked quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to seal with 1:51 to go in the game. The turnovers were without the flash of interceptions – New England has only five on the season, with two courtesy of since-traded linebacker Jamie Collins – but style points did not factor into their importance. They were grind-it-out plays the Patriots had to have.
It’s the number of passing yards that Tom Brady had through the first quarter of action against New York. The Patriots quarterback was 3-of-9 over that opening sequence, and gained as much ground as Jets receiving back Bilal Powell had rushing through that span. That would change in due time.
Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch, who had been flagged for offsides only a few snaps earlier, blocked a 54-yard Nick Folk field-goal attempt with the first half winding down and the score reading 10-10. It checked in as the first blocked field goal of the year for New England, when excluding linebacker Shea McClellin’s extra-point block against the Seattle Seahawks two weeks ago.
A week after missing his third extra point of the season, Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed his fourth field-goal attempt of the season. The latest in those seven miscues arrived on a 39-yard try with five seconds to go before halftime, as the ball sailed wide left. But Gostkowski, who missed eight kicks combined over the previous three seasons, later converted when called upon for a 29-yarder in the third quarter and a 41-yarder in the fourth.
With a second-quarter pass to receiver Julian Edelman down the right sideline, Brady became the fifth player in NFL history to throw for 60,000 yards. He joined Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees and Dan Marino in the process, and currently stands with 60,229 for his career.
Most quarterbacks find themselves on the losing end when tasked with throwing 50 passes. Brady is not most quarterbacks. The 39-year-old finished 30-of-50 passing for 286 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, which brought him to a 13-7 record as starter when turning to the air 50-plus times. But passing attempts were not the only 50-related milestone Brady reached versus New York. His final TD strike, down by one, also gave him 50 game-winning drives for his career.
Last week against the 49ers, Brady tied Favre for the second-most wins all-time among starting quarterbacks with 199. This week, he surpassed him and moved into a tie with Manning for the most in league history with 200.
Over his last two games, Patriots rookie Malcolm Mitchell has recorded the first three touchdown catches of his NFL career. And versus New York, the Georgia product had his first multi-score game. At the 6:29 mark in the second quarter, Brady dropped the shotgun snap and retrieved it as Mitchell got behind ex-Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis in the back of the end zone. The byproduct tied game at 10 apiece. Then, at the 1:56 mark in the fourth, Brady found Mitchell again on an eight-yarder ahead of Revis as New England took a 22-17 lead. Mitchell is now the first rookie receiver to catch three touchdowns in a two-game span for the Patriots since both Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson did so in 2013.
Jets running back Matt Forte headed in as the league’s eighth-ranked rusher with 732 yards – as well as seven touchdowns – on 189 carries. But in game No. 11 of the campaign, Forte and fellow Jets back Bilal Powell were limited to 67 rushing yards combined on 21 carries, good for only a 3.1-yard average against New England’s run defense.
Jabaal Sheard went from 56 snaps against the Buffalo Bills to 16 snaps against the Seahawks and no snaps against the 49ers. But after a week in which he stayed home as the Patriots flew to Santa Clara, the defensive end in the midst of a contract year returned to the team’s actives on Sunday. Sheard finished with 25 snaps in the Jets matchup, and had his moments in both the running and passing game, logging three tackles.
That would be the total receiving yardage accrued by Jets wideouts Brandon Marshall and Quincy Enunwa versus the Patriots. In the first half, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Marshall and the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Enunwa combined for 118 yards and a score on eight catches and nine targets. And the two finished 176 yards and two scores on 11 catches and 15 targets, again proving to be big, physical and tough covers for all of New England’s secondary to account for.
If it feels like the Patriots and Jets always play it close, it’s because the two divisional rivals do. Each of the last seven games between New England and New York have been decided by seven points or fewer, and the last time that wasn’t the case was Nov. 22, 2012, when the Patriots walked away with a 49-19 Thanksgiving rout in East Rutherford.
The Patriots had posted a winning percentage above .500 in 15 consecutive regular seasons entering Sunday. And that was extended to 16 as Bill Belichick’s club secured a 9-2 record with the victory over New York. New England has now won at least nine games in each campaign dating back to 2001. That 5-11 record in 2000 seems like a lifetime ago. For many, it was.