FOXBORO -- Let’s start with a basic premise: It was a win.
Wins in the NFL are very hard to come by. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing the Giants or the Browns. They are all to be treasured. And the win is compounded by the fact that it was a victory over a division and conference opponent, and those can never be overrated. At the end of the season, those wins will be stacked like poker chips and used to cash in things like home-field advantage and the like.
However, at the end of Sunday’s 29-26 overtime victory for the Patriots over the Jets (click here for the complete recap), there was the same vague feeling of unease that surrounded the team through most of the first three losses of the season. Frankly, there was little to assuage those who were worried about the late struggles, the breakdowns in pass defense or the nagging inability to take advantage of opponents’ miscues. All of these problems were on display, particularly down the stretch when New England lost a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter and had to fight its way back just to force overtime.
But the Patriots had just enough to win.
“We had our ups and downs, and in the end we just made enough plays to win, and that’s what it’s all about,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We got good contributions from all three units. We just have to keep working harder to get better, to do things better and eliminate a few of the mistakes we had. I’m proud of the team. I thought they played mentally and physically tough, and like I said, in the end made enough plays to win.”
It wasn’t all worrisome: The Patriots run defense remains one of the best in the NFL, and New England actually was able to close out the game with an excellent defensive play by a player in Rob Ninkovich who is becoming one of the most underrated and versatile defenders in the league. And the sight of Stephen Gostkowski delivering a pair of big kicks with the game on the line should quell any fears about him being jumpy.
In the end, in the words of defensive lineman Vince Wilfork -- who lay face down on the turf for a good 20 seconds after the final play of the game, a last defensive stand for New England that resulted in a sack of Mark Sanchez -- a win is a win is a win. After all, we’re not talking about the BCS here.
“Our main job was to get out of this game with a 'W.' I don’t care how we get it: Get a 'W,' ” said Wilfork, who wore a shirt with the phrase “Do work” in big block letters to his postgame press conference.
“Division game -- you can’t be pissed off with how you won or the things you’ve done. I think it was a great team win. It showed a lot from these New England Patriots, just fighting in overtime. Guys banged up, guys tired, offense going out, putting the drive together, defense taking the field and ending the game on a sack and fumble. That was good football.”
Right now, with this team, that’s the best you’re going to get: Just enough. At least until the Pats can get to the bye and really take a hard look at where they stand as a team. People around the league say that no team is as good at self-scouting and finding its own weaknesses like the Patriots, and after next Sunday’s game against the Rams, they’ll get their chance for a little extended introspection thanks to the bye week.
“We’re 4-3, we’re in a decent position,” said quarterback Tom Brady. “We have the whole season ahead of us.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday afternoon in Foxboro.
NO ONE WAS HAPPIER TO SEE STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI SUCCEED THAN DEVIN McCOURTY
With the game in the balance in the fourth quarter, Devin McCourty was praying Stephen Gostkowski could connect. After all, if Gostkowski had missed, most of the people would only remember McCourty for his ill-timed fumbled on his fourth-quarter kick return that set up the Jets with great field position and a go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter -- not for his 104-yard kick return for a touchdown that electrified the Gillette Stadium crowd in the first quarter and pumped some emotion into a relatively flat Patriots team.
“My teammates saved my life today,” McCourty said. “It was a bad mistake in the fourth quarter. I just have to do a better job holding on to the ball.”
That put the capper on an eventful day for McCourty, who earlier produced the second-longest kick return for a touchdown in franchise history. His runback tied the game at 7-7 and helped provide New England with its lone special teams highlight through the first seven games of the season.
“I just ran one way, and [Ryan Wendell] and Daniel [Fells] did a good job. Once I saw them turn a certain way, I just made one cut,” he said of the 104-yard return. “We talk about once you get up to the kicker, that’s your responsibility -- I just made a move and used my speed to get to the end zone.
“I think my teammates did a great job on kickoff return. Just the touchdown -- no one touched me.”
In between the special teams’ ups and downs, he spent the day at safety, a departure from his usual work at corner. He finished with five tackles on the afternoon (all solo) while working most of the game in tandem with rookie Tavon Wilson.
“With [Patrick] Chung and [Steve] Gregory both out, we felt like we had to do something back there at safety. Devin has some experience back there. I thought he did a pretty solid job from what I could see,” Belichick said of McCourty, who spent some time at safety at the end of the 2011 regular season and into the playoffs.
“We’ll take a little closer look at it,” Belichick added. “I thought the deep part of the field was more secure than it’s been. The kickoff return was a big play, it got us going. He’s a solid guy, he does a good job for us. Whatever he’s asked to do, he does a good job for us.”
GOSTKOWSKI FOUND REDEMPTION
The kicker had some shaky moments earlier in the season when he botched what would have been a game-winner against the Cardinals and then missed a pair of makeable kicks against the Bills. But the University of Memphis product has bounced back very nicely since, with six straight successful field goals, including two huge makes Sunday afternoon.
First, he connected on a 43-yarder at the end of regulation -- at the same end of the stadium where he missed late against Arizona -- and then he made what turned out to be the game-winner in overtime when he banged home a 48-yarder.
The kicker didn’t hang around to talk with the media after the game, but his coaches and teammates were more than willing to sing the praises of the 28-year-old.
“It’s a good feeling -- probably the best feeling in the house for the guy next to me,” holder Zoltan Mesko said. “I feel great [for him]. I never lost hope -- he’s the guy we trust. He’s like a brother to me because we’re together all the time.”
Said linebacker Rob Ninkovich: “Steve is a great, great kicker and I’m happy that he’s on our team. He’s just great overall, everything he does. Kickoffs, he puts them deep. Field goals, he’s always kicking clutch field goals for us.”
The overtime field goal was Gostkowski’s second career game-winner in OT, with his other overtime game-winner coming in October 2010, a 35-yarder against the Ravens that gave New England a 23-20 win. Following his two field goals Sunday, Gostkowski is 23-for-25 (92 percent) in his career in the fourth quarter or overtime when the score of the game is within seven points. He has hit 22 of his last 23 such attempts (95.7 percent) since the 2007 season.
“Yeah, Steve came through big. He hit some big kicks and he kicked off well. Yup, [he] did a good job,” Belichick said. “We got plays from every unit. We had so many people step up and play well. And the Jets played well, too. They did a good job. Tough, hard-fought game, came down to a few plays, luckily we made a few more than they did. I thought it was as competitive as it could get. That’s usually the way it is with the Jets, they’re always hard-fought games.”
ROB NINKOVICH CONTINUES TO BE THE PATRIOTS’ MOST UNDERRATED DEFENDER
As he has done so frequently over the last few games -- all while working at multiple positions -- Rob Ninkovich made some big plays Sunday against the Jets, including the sack and forced fumble of Sanchez that ended the game in overtime.
“It was just an edge rush. Jermaine Cunningham did a great job of getting inside on the guard and kind of shortened that corner for me,” said Ninkovich, who ultimately split the sack with Cunningham. “I was able to get around the guy, and I saw Jermaine on his legs get him down and [Sanchez] try to throw it. I just got the ball. I knocked [Sanchez] down and picked up the ball.
“I kind of knew as I’m coming to him, he’s trying to throw the ball. The ball is right there, and I saw the ball pop out, and I was able to crawl and scoop it and fall on it. It was a great felling to have the offense go down, score, kick a field goal and have the defense finish it out. It was great for the defense to be able to do that.”
The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ninkovich ended up with six tackles (four solo), 1.5 sacks for 9.5 yards, two tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, one forced fumble (his team-leading fourth of the season) and one fumble recovery. He’s forced four fumbles on the season -- Mike Vrabel had five forced fumbles in 2007, which was the most for any Patriots player within the last 20 years.
In the first half, it appeared he was spending the bulk of his time at linebacker, but after rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower returned to the lineup on a regular basis in the second half, it appeared Ninkovich was lining up more at defensive end.
“He’s at the end of the line, however you want to slice it up -- whether he’s up or down or end or linebacker, whatever you want to call it, he’s an end-of-the-line-type player,” Belichick said of Ninkovich, who built on a two-interception game last November against the Jets with another great effort.
“Rob does a good job for us. He made a big play on the running play there, came inside and made the hit in the overtime series, and obviously the strip. He’s around the ball and always seems to play well against the Jets. He’s got a lot of big plays against those guys.”
THE PATRIOTS RUN DEFENSE IS EQUAL TO THE CHALLENGE OF THE GROUND-AND-POUND
As many slings and arrows as the New England pass defense has taken through the first seven games, the run defense has been very good.
On Sunday, the Patriots were able to hold New York’s rushing attack to 106 yards on 33 carries, an average of just 3.2 yards per carry. It marked the fourth straight game in which New England has held an opponent under four yards per carry. The Jets’ longest run from scrimmage was 13 yards, and not counting sacks, New York had 26 yards rushing from the midway point of the fourth quarter through the end of the overtime session.
As for the individual breakdowns, the Jets’ leading rusher was Shonn Greene, who had 16 carries for 54 yards and a touchdown. (Sunday snapped a three-game streak in which the Patriots hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown.) In addition, Joe McKnight had seven carries for 23 yards, while Lex Hilliard -- who had a cup of coffee with the Patriots last month before being cut -- added 14 yards on three carries.
For his part, Greene was on the wrong end of the biggest hit of the night, courtesy of linebacker Brandon Spikes. It came with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Sanchez found Greene on a short pass over the middle. Greene was planted by Spikes, and he stayed on the ground briefly before walking off under his own power. He went to the locker room briefly but returned for overtime.
CONVERSELY, THE PATRIOTS CAN WIN WHEN STEVAN RIDLEY DOESN’T REACH THE CENTURY MARK
Coming into this game, one of the easiest default stats for the Patriots offense involved the onesie-wearing running back out of Louisiana State. Simply put, when Ridley rushes for at least 100 yards this season, New England wins the game. He topped the century mark against the Titans, Bills and Broncos, while he was held under 100 by the Cardinals, Ravens and Seahawks.
On Sunday against the Jets, Ridley fell short of 100 yards, but the Patriots were able to shake up their running game a bit and give New York a few different looks. Shane Vereen got a surprise start and ended up with eight carries on 49 yards to go along with one catch for 10 yards. Vereen, who had a career-best afternoon (his previous high was a 39-yard effort last year in garbage time against the Chiefs) gave credit to the offensive line.
“They did an amazing job,” he said. “I was able to pop off those long runs and get to the second level because they did a great job.”
The Patriots also mixed in some Danny Woodhead, who provided his usual mix of versatility and dependability -- 17 rushing yards and 29 receiving yards (with four catches on four targets, improving his total to 14 catches on 15 targets this season). And Ridley had 65 yards on 17 carries. As a team, it adds up to 131 yards on 31 carries, an average of 4.2 yards per carry.
The four-minute offense continues to be an issue -- it remains to be seen how much of that is because of the backs and how much of that is the result of other problems -- but Belichick liked the way the group worked in several aspects of the game Sunday, particularly blitz pickup.
“They all played, they were all productive,” he said. “They all were involved in blitz pickup. The Jets several times sent linebackers right up the middle on us. So we had to stand in there and pick those guys up. I thought our backs competed well too today.”
CONSIDERING THE FACT THAT THERE WERE SOME PERSONNEL PROBLEMS, THE OFFENSIVE LINE DID WELL
The Patriots were without left guard Logan Mankins, who sat out because of myriad injury issues that have been dogging him over the last few weeks, including calf and hip problems -- not to mention any residual effects of the offseason knee surgery he’s had to deal with.
Then their depth along the interior took another hit when right guard Dan Connolly went down early in the afternoon with what the team was calling an illness. (After the game, Belichick called it “indigestion.”) As a result, the Patriots spent the majority of the afternoon with their backup guards in the game -- Donald Thomas was at left guard and Nick MacDonald was on the right. They were part of an offensive line that yielded just two quarterback hits and one sack. (The one sack ties a season low for New England.)
“The next guy tries to step in and play as well as he can -- it’s like that on every single team,” Thomas said with a shrug. “All the other teams have been through the same philosophy. You come in and play just as well or try to play better than who you’re replacing and try not to hurt the team. Guys did a great job, Nick did a great job today, stepping up at a minute’s notice and being ready to go.
“The thing is, you try not to let it be a distraction to the game plan. And you’ve got guys who are able to step up and play. It’s unfortunate when you don’t have someone else -- one of your starters [Connolly] that gets sick before a game. But he can’t go and someone else had to step up and play. You can’t let it be a distraction. You’ve just got to play.”
Said Belichick: “I thought the tackles did a good job, Nate [Solder] and Sebastian [Vollmer] out there on the edge. They blocked those guys all day. We threw the ball a lot. They did a good job on those edge rushers. Overall, they handled the blitzes. Not perfect but competitively.”
WITH TOM BRADY, THERE WAS A SENSE OF DEJA VU
Back on Sept. 14, 2009, the Patriots and Bills met at Gillette in a throwback game with divisional implications. In that one, Brady -- who was ragged at times early -- snapped back late, engineering a pair of touchdown drives in the final 2:06 to lift New England to a 25-24 victory.
On Sunday against the Jets, it was much of the same. In the red Pat Patriot throwbacks, Brady looked ragged at times against an aggressive defense but managed to put together a pair of drives with the game on the line to help the Patriots pick up an overtime win.
His first came late in the fourth when he steered New England on a six-play, 54-yard drive that ended with a Gostkowski field goal at the buzzer to tie the game. In that series, the quarterback leaned on Danny Woodhead (two catches for 27 yards on that drive) and Rob Gronkowski (also two catches for 27 yards).
His second big drive came in the extra session when he engineered a 12-play, 54-yard drive in which he spread the ball around -- four players either caught passes or carried the ball on the series, including pass plays to Wes Welker of 12 and 13 yards. That got Gostkowski into range, and he booted his second big one of the night, a 48-yarder that proved to be the difference.
In the end, Brady was good but not great, ending up 26-for-42 for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Ultimately, he was at his best when it counted: He went 9-for-13 for 95 yards on the final two drives.
“We executed better. I think that’s what it is,” Brady said when asked about the difference between the drive at the end of the regulation and in overtime vs. the rest of the game.
“It really wasn’t our best day of execution in terms of assignments -- we have to nail those things down. A lot of those inconsistencies, you don’t score points, and we didn’t score as many as we needed to. And those last couple of drives, we moved the ball better. I wouldn’t say they were great drives, but they were good enough.”
FOR ROB GRONKOWSKI, A WIN IS A WIN
The tight end came away with six catches (tying Wes Welker for tops on the team) for 78 yards and two touchdowns, and he was at his best down the stretch. On New England’s last drive in regulation -- the one in which Gostkowski’s 43-yard field goal tied the game -- Gronkowski accounted for 27 of the drive's 54 yards with a pair of catches.
“We just went out and completed passes, got the run game going a little bit, and everyone was just doing their job,” Gronkowski said when asked about the execution early as opposed to what happened late. “The O-line was doing good and Tom was putting the ball where it needed to be caught and the receivers were making good plays. Overall, we executed as an offense to get where we needed to [be] to kick that field goal.”
He looked slightly hobbled at times, but Gronkowski scored on a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a 2-yard touchdown in the third quarter for his first two-touchdown receiving game of 2012. It also marked the 10th game of his career with two or more touchdown receptions in a game. (Both touchdowns produced vintage Gronk spikes.)
“Well, a win’s a win. I’ll take it whatever way. You can win some ugly and you can win some pretty, and it just doesn’t matter. We work together as a team and we got the victory,” he said. “It’s always great. That’s why you work so hard all week. That’s why you prepare as hard as you can all week, and getting the victory is awesome.”
THE JETS WILL HANG AROUND ALL SEASON
The Jets have lost cornerback Darrelle Revis and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, and their once-vaunted defense doesn’t bring the heat like it did a few years ago. But New York certainly was up to the challenge Sunday afternoon, limiting the New England offense to two touchdowns on the afternoon and making the Patriots sweat things out in the fourth quarter.
The Jets did shoot themselves in the foot on several occasions -- particularly in the first half when they gave away a safety on a mishandled exchange between Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene, committed a boneheaded penalty on a punt that gave the ball back to New England, and topped it off by a horrific throw from Sanchez that looked like it was shot out of a catapault. (It took so long to come down that Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard could have signaled for a fair catch.)
But when the game was on the line, particularly in the second half, the Jets made plays when it counted. Sanchez finished 28-for-41 for a season-high 328 passing yards, and if it wasn’t for a drop by rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill late in the game, there’s a good chance that the Jets put up more than 13 points in the fourth quarter.
“It stings. It just really stings. We play hard throughout whole game and we had some opportunities in the red zone,” Sanchez said. “We said it earlier in the week -- you can’t kick field goals against this team. You’ve got to get seven points, and we came up short a couple of times and missed some opportunities.”
Said Belichick: “We know the Jets are going to be there all the way through -- they’ll be there at the end. There’s a lot of football left to be played,. The Jets are a good team, they played well [Sunday], as they have the last couple of weeks. I think they’ve continued to get better. We’ll have to keep our game going at that rate as we go through each of the succeeding weeks here.”