EAST RUTHERFORD -- The race for the AFC East title is over.
It ended at about 9:30 on Thanksgiving night when the Patriots delivered a 35-point broadside to the Jets in the second quarter at MetLife Stadium, setting the stage for a 49-19 rout of their divisional rivals and sending New York superfan Fireman Ed home early. (For a full recap, click HERE.)
“Anytime you win a game in the division, it’s a good thing,” said wide receiver Wes Welker, who finished with a team-high seven catches (on 10 targets) for 71 yards and a touchdown. “Especially when playing the Jets here on Thanksgiving. It made the win extra special.”
It was also extra special because New England is now in complete command of the division. With the win, the Patriots move to 8-3 on the season, and hold a 3.5-game lead on their closest pursuers (the Dolphins and Bills, both of whom are 4-6) with five games to play. That means that even if Buffalo and Miami win this weekend, the Patriots will still be up by three with five to play. Barring a total collapse, it’s an insurmountable edge that should allow New England to now turn its’ attention to more important matters -- namely, the chase for the No. 2 seed (and the bye) in the AFC playoff picture.
Thursday’s win was made all the more impressive by the fact that the Patriots were able to win a road game on a short week. New England was able to display mental toughness, following up a nice win four days ago by going on the road and throttling a division opponent that was playing to save its season.
“The guys did a great job on a short week, turning it around very quickly after the Sunday game,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork, who was part of a defense that limited the Jets to two touchdowns. “Guys stayed focused in practice, all the way up to game time. It was the details we had down pat -- it showed tonight.”
Mathematically, it’s still possible that the Bills and Dolphins could come out of nowhere and win the thing. But it’s almost a fait accompli that the Patriots have hats and T-shirts in the future, and they’ll come sooner rather than later.
“I thought that they had a good week,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who notched his 200th career win a head coach with the victory. “We’ll see about next week. Next week could be another challenge against Miami, but they did it this week.”
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Thursday night.
THE PATRIOTS CAN END A GAME IN 52 SECONDS
It was a stunning sequence, a 52-second lightning bolt that energized the Patriots and completely demoralized the Jets. With just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, New England held a 7-0 lead, and forced a takeaway when Steve Gregory came away with a Jets fumble at the New England 17. Following the fumble, Brady hit Shane Vereen on a route out of the backfield, and the speedy running back took off like a shot down the New England sideline, putting the Patriots up 14-0.
“He had a wheel route and they carried Wes (Welker) and Brandon (Lloyd) on the outside,” Brady said of the 83-yard connection. “They just carried them up the field, and there was a lot of space. Once I threw to (Vereen), he’s so fast he can outrun those guys. He caught it up the sideline and it was nice seeing the back of his jersey running all the way down the field. He opened it up and it was a great play.”
That’s when the real insanity began: On the first play from scrimmage on the following drive, Mark Sanchez botched a handoff, and then ran directly into the backside of offensive linemen Brandon Moore. Flattened, he dropped to the ground and dropped the ball. Gregory picked it up and dashed 32 yards to the end zone for the score, making it 21-0 with 9:00 left in the second quarter.
“I think it may have been a miscommunication,” Moore said after the game.
It only got worst for the Jets -- on the ensuing kickoff, Joe McKnight was popped by Devin McCourty and coughed up the football. Julian Edelman plucked it out of midair and ran it back 22 yards for ANOTHER touchdown to make it 28-0.
“It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Sanchez. “This is a team that you can’t turn the ball over against because they make you pay, and it was a great display of that today. Hats off to them for taking advantage of the opportunities that we missed and things that we screwed up. They make you pay.”
Three touchdowns -- one offense, one defense and one special teams -- in 52 seconds. In that span, the game was done.
“It doesn’t take a lot to score a lot of points in this league quickly (with) turnovers, defensive returns, special teams returns. It can add up in a hurry,” Belichick said. “Nothing surprises me in the NFL. That’s why it’s a great game.”
IT’S A NEW ERA AT SAFETY
Despite the fact that Patrick Chung was active for the first time since Oct. 14, the Patriots went with the combination of Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety, and the two appeared to work quite well together. Gregory had a tremendous night, coming away with a pick and two fumbles in the win. (He added five tackles, a forced fumble and a special teams tackle for good measure.)
“I thought he had a real good play on the interception,” Belichick said. “He read the quarterback well and picked up the route. Of course, the fumbles ... it was just a good scoop-and-score play. Steve’s a gutty player, a smart player and is very instinctive and just plays well. He’s made a lot of plays for us this year.”
While Chung got some reps over the course of the evening, it will be interesting to see how the snaps are doled out going forward. It certainly appears that the former Oregon star has an uphill battle when it comes to working his way back to a regular spot in New England’s rotation of defensive backs.
THE PATRIOTS PASS PROTECTION REMAINS SOLID
There was one little bump in the road -- on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage, Brady was swarmed under by the New York pass rush, and in his haste to get rid of the ball, tried to dump it off but was called for intentional grounding in the process. That was it, as the quarterback was kept clean by his offensive line for most of the night -- he wasn’t sacked, and was only hit once (by New York linebacker David Harris). Despite the fact that starting left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer were sidelined, the combination of Nate Solder, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon gave Brady more than enough time to pick the Jets apart. Overall, Brady has been sacked just three times in the last six games, and while there were occasional troubles opening up holes on the ground against the Jets, the pass protection was stellar all evening.
THERE WAS NO NEED TO RELY ON THE “JET KILLER” THIS TIME AROUND
The Patriots were without rookie defensive end Chandler Jones on Thursday night, but the Patriots were still able to get a good consistent rush on Sanchez. (That was in large part because of the fact that the Jets fell behind big early and had to throw to try and get back into the game, but in the end, pressure is pressure.) This time around, they didn’t have to rely on Rob Ninkovich, who had feasted on New York in the past -- he had the walkoff sack the first time around earlier this year in overtime and had two picks last November against the Jets. Instead, they got a nice consistent effort across the board from Ninkovich (who spent a good chunk of the evening in Jones old right defensive end spot), as well as Jermaine Cunningham. In the end, New England came away with two sacks (one from Jerod Mayo and one from Dont’a Hightower) and three quarterback hits in the win.
BRANDON SPIKES IS THE PATRIOTS BEST RUN STOPPER
The linebacker forced another fumble on Thursday night against the Jets, his fifth forced fumble of the season (which ties him with Ninkovich for the team lead). While he continues to attack the wrong gap from time to time, he remains a tenacious force in the running game -- Spikes tied with Mayo for the team lead in tackles with 11 (seven of them solo) and added a pass defense for good measure. While the forced fumble was important, his biggest play of the night came midway through the third quarter. With the Jets looking to capitalize on their only takeaway of the night, they had maneuvered to 1-yard line. Facing a fourth down, the Jets gave the ball to Shonn Greene, who was met at the goal line and pushed back by Spikes.
TOM BRADY LOVES FACING THE JETS
For the second consecutive week, the quarterback was on the sidelines for much of the game-changing sequence. After he delivered a 83-yard pass play to Vereen at the start of the second quarter, he watched as the Jets botched a handoff, which led directly to a New England touchdown. He was also a spectator for the fumbled kickoff return, which led to the Patriots’ next touchdown. (In all, New England had the ball for just 2:14 in the second quarter while putting up 35 points.) But that didn’t mean he didn’t have an impressive night -- in fact, Brady finished with a season-high 139.4 passer rating, going 18-for-28 for 323 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. While the 17-play, 87-yard drive in the fourth quarter consumed more clock, it was the 15-play, 84-yard drive that wrapped around the end of the first and start of the second quarter that was probably his highlight -- it was a decisive drive that set the tone for the offense, and ended with a three-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker on a play where no one was within five yards of the wide receiver in the end zone.
THE SPECIAL TEAMERS DID THEIR JOB ... AGAIN
There were no signature return moments for the New England special teamers Thursday night against the Jets, but all in all, the group did more than enough to earn itself a passing grade, with the highlight coming when the Patriots knocked a kickoff return away from Joe McKnight. Zoltan Mesko averaged 41.7 punts on his three attempts, and Julian Edelman averaged 16 yards on his two punts returns. The one area where there were issue? We’re nitpicking here, but Stephen Gostkowski struggled at times. He made all seven of his extra-point attempts, but he missed his one field-goal attempt (a first quarter 37-yard attempt went wide left), and despite the fact that he put seven kickoffs into the end zone, only one of his nine kickoffs went for a touchback.
WITH NO ROB GRONKOWSKI, IT WAS A COLLECTIVE ATTEMPT TO PICK UP THE SLACK
Earlier in the week, we detailed the four players who needed to step their game up in the wake of the injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Here’s a quick look at how they did Sunday against the Jets:
Aaron Hernandez: In his first game back in a month (and his first game at full strength since going down with an ankle injury in a Week 2 loss to the Cardinals), the rangy tight end didn’t look any worse for wear against the Jets. He caught a 28-yard pass in the first half over the middle, and displayed some of his typical open field ability. He ended with two catches for 36 yards.
Brandon Lloyd: The wide receiver had three catches (on six targets) for 26 targets, and was able to contribute to a passing game that was still finding its footing without Gronkowski. His high-water mark was probably a 12-yard catch in the first half, his first reception of the game.
Stevan Ridley: The second-year back out of LSU had 21 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown, and displayed a good, consistent running style on the night as he was called upon to move the chains, particularly in the second half when the Patriots were just as concerned with killing the clock as they were scoring touchdowns. (More on Ridley’s effort below.)
Julian Edelman: A good night for Edelman, who continues to emerge as a viable threat in the passing game. He had two catches for 64 yards and another special teams touchdown when he collected the fumbled kickoff from McKnight and took it back for a score. As a receiver, the bulk of his yardage came on a perfectly executed 56-yard pass play from Brady just before the end of the half that pushed New England’s lead to 35-0. On the play, he was able to slip behind the defense and beat safety LaRon Landry down the field, hauling in a perfectly thrown ball from Brady for the score. (Edelman did get his bell rung in the second half, suffering a head injury after Landry collided with the wide receiver. His status will be worth monitoring when the injury report is released on Wednesday.)
THE PATRIOTS RAN THE BALL WELL LATE
Lest anyone think that New England was running things up, the Patriots ran the ball 24 times in the second half (compared to 14 pass attempts in the same stretch), and were able to consistently get good yardage from their backs, particularly in the third and fourth quarter when the Patriots were simply trying to bleed the clock. As a result, New England had the ball for 11 minutes in the fourth quarter, as Stevan Ridley (21 carries, 97 rushing yards, one touchdown) and Shane Vereen (10 carries, 42 rushing yards) got good yards for the Patriots. New England just missed out on that 4.0 YPC plateau it aims for each week, but in all, it’ll take the 152 rushing yards, particularly coming after a subpar game the week before against the Colts.