EAST RUTHERFORD -- The pass was flipped into the air by Tom Brady, a floater headed in the direction of Rob Gronkowski.
In the fourth quarter Sunday against the Jets, the Patriots were trailing 27-24, but sitting on the New York 26-yard line with a first-and-10. There were 36 seconds left when Brady, operating out of the shotgun, dropped back and rolled gradually to his right. Gronkowski -- in his first game of the season -- was hit by a defender coming off the line but still fought his way into the start of his route down the field. He managed to get some small measure of separation from defensive back Antonio Allen, and the quarterback, seeing the open window, threw it across his body ever so slightly.
It would have made the comeback story all the more impressive, particularly on the heels of last week’s win over the Saints. The quarterback got his redemption story last week against New Orleans, erasing his earlier struggles with a dramatic win. Now, after spending months on the shelf after an offseason filled with nothing but uncertainty, the tight end would be able to put a nice bow on his long journey back to the field.
But the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. Gronkowski -- even with those massive white Hamburger Helper gloves he brings to the field on a regular basis -- wasn’t able to corral the pass. He got his right hand on it but couldn’t get both hands on the ball, and it bounced away.
“I’m mad at myself,” said Gronkowski, who had nothing but green turf between him and the end zone, a sure touchdown. “I had it, I brought it in … then, I dropped it.”
It was a maddeningly frustrating play for Gronkowski, and illustrative of the Patriots woes on the day. While New England would get a field goal to tie the game and force the extra session, it was an afternoon of missed opportunities for Brady, Gronkowski and the rest of the Patriots, who suffered a 30-27 overtime loss to the Jets in front of a wild crowd at MetLife Stadium.
“He ran a great route and we gave him an opportunity,” said Brady. “He makes that 99 out of 100, but it was just one of those days where it doesn’t happen for us. We still had plenty of other opportunities after that. It really shouldn’t have come down to that play, if we had been executing better over the course of the day. They put pressure on you. Coverage is going to be tight. There are going to be tight throws and we have to throw. We have to make the plays when they’re there.”
The play was indicative of the entire afternoon for the Patriots, who spent much of the day just missing out on chances to put the Jets away. New England cruised to an 11-point halftime lead, and appeared poised to deliver the same sort of second-half knockout blow they had administered to the Jets in their second games going back to 2009. (The last four seasons, the average score of the second game between the Patriots and Jets is 41-13 New England.)
But a constant parade of second-half miscues did them in: On a wheel play out of the backfield, Brandon Bolden was able to get all the way down inside the 1-yard line, but the play was called back on a pass interference call on Gronkowski. A pass for Gronkowski inside the Jets’ 5-yard line went over his head. (He later confessed he couldn’t see the ball.) Brady airmailed one over the head of a wide-open Julian Edelman in overtime, and missed connections with several others. They couldn’t convert on third down on offense, and on the other side of the ball, they couldn’t get off the field on several key moments.
The low came on an unsportsmanlike penalty call on defensive lineman Chris Jones on Nick Folk’s first field goal attempt in overtime, a 56-yarder that was off the mark. On the play, Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct -- that is, pushing the pile into the opponents’ formation. The rule, which had been instituted this offseason, had never been called in an NFL game until the extra session Sunday afternoon but allowed the Jets to get a little closer, and Folk nailed a 42-yarder with 5:07 left in the extra session to end it.
“The mistake was mine. I take it,” said Jones in the locker room. “I put it on my shoulders. It was all my fault. It was no one else.”
But make no mistake -- Chris Jones wasn’t the reason the Patriots lost. They lost because the offense was 1-for-12 on third down, the defense allowed the Jets to convert 52 percent of their third-down chances, they failed to put together any sort of offensive consistency in the third quarter and took a season-high 100 penalty yards. Missed chancesd and ill-timed errors on both sides of the ball. It all added up to New England’s first divisional loss in its last 13 games against AFC East foes.
“I didn’t feel like we did anything well enough like the way we need to do it,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “This goes for coaching, playing, offense, defense, special teams, you name it. We made too many mistakes and we just didn’t play and coach well enough today. We have to do a better job -- we’re better than that.”
“It was close, and we’re close a lot,” Brady said after the game. “We just have to start making them, all of us. The balls have to be better thrown. Everyone has to look at themselves and do a better job, because what we’re doing right now isn’t good enough.”
Truth be told, it wasn’t the finest hour for the quarterback. He threw a pick-six at the worst possible time, one that breathed new life into the Jets at the start of the third quarter. He missed connections with receivers, including the fateful one late with Gronkowski. He ended up going 22-for-46 (47.8 percent) for 228 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, and it marked the second time in the last three weeks he completed less than 50 percent of his passes. (In fact, the quarterback -- who has usually been able to fall back on his accuracy when all else fails him -- has completed more than 60 percent of his passes in just two of his five games this season.)
“There (are) no excuses -- we just didn’t play well,” said Brady. “I (have) to do a better job out there. That’s what I need to do.”
To this point in the season, the Patriots have managed to gain a nice foothold near the top of the rapidly developing conference hierarchy. But Brady and Belichick know that any division loss is bad, and a conference loss can be costly down the road when it comes to jockeying for playoff position. (An 11-5 mark and first-round bye can become 9-7 and a wild-card berth in the blink of an eye.) They have to hope that Sunday’s missed opportunities -- and the resulting loss -- won’t be the sort of thing that could cause them to lose that footing down the road.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots Sunday afternoon:
ROB GRONKOWSKI IS ALMOST ALL THE WAY BACK
There were plenty of positive flashes from the big tight end on Sunday against the Jets, who led all receivers on both sides of the ball Sunday in targets (17) and receiving yards (114), and led the Patriots with eight catches on the afternoon. He was at his best on New England’s first scoring drive of the afternoon when he accounted for 42 of the 80 yards on the drive, which included a 30-yard catch down the middle that got the Patriots down to the goal line. (Two plays later, Brandon Bolden plunged in from the one for New England’s first touchdown of the day.) He had his left arm wrapped in a long black sleeve/brace, and he didn’t look too worse for wear after the game. He admitted to having some stamina issues at the end of the game, but that’s the sort of thing that will take time. All in all -- other than the missed connection with Brady at the end of the game -- it was a positive step forward for Gronkowski. (It’s worth mentioning that he wasn’t part of the Patriots extra-point team -- he was on the end of the line as a blocker when he initially suffered his forearm injury against the Colts last November.)
THERE NEEDS TO BE SOME CLARIFICATION ON THE JONES RULE
After the game, there was still plenty of confusion about the penalty that allowed the Jets another shot at the game-winning field goal. On the replay, it appeared that Jones lined up over Jets offensive lineman Vlad Ducasse, and when the ball was snapped, Jones looped behind teammate Will Svitek and pushed Svitek into the pile. That was the infraction that drew the attention of the officials, and referee Jerome Boger explained that Jones was called for pushing his teammate “into the opponent's formation.” However, Belichick was fuming after the penalty -- when he was asked about it later, he didn’t appear to have an issue with the rule (Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3), but instead, how it was applied, saying players would be flagged if they lined up behind the line of scrimmage and pushed from that angle as opposed to someone like Jones who was pushing from the trenches. “You can’t push on the second level,” Belichick said. “I don’t think we did that. They eliminated the pushing on the second level.” Regardless, the penalty -- the first time it was called all season in the NFL -- was a costly one, and gave the Jets a second chance. Four plays later, Folk nailed the 42-yarder to end matters.
CHRIS JONES IS ACCOUNTABLE
After the contest Jones spoke with reporters in the locker room and answered all the questions regarding his involvement in the play. He took full responsibility for what happened, admitting that he wasn’t aware of the rule that was enacted prior to the start of the season. “It was something we talked about in camp and it just skipped out of my mind,” said the rookie out of Bowling Green. “It was my mistake and nobody else’s. I just have to man up to it and fix it next time.” In the end, his mistake will erase the memory of what was a pretty good game for Jones, who had 10 tackles and a pair of sacks in the loss.
GRONKOWSKI OR NO, THE PATRIOTS ARE PATHETIC IN THE THIRD QUARTER
Over the course of the first seven games of the season, the Patriots have scored nine points in the third quarter. On Sunday against the Jets, New England was held scoreless in the third, and the troubles were compounded by the fact that the Jets put up 17 in the same span, taking a 21-10 New England lead and turning it into a 27-21 deficit by the start of the fourth. In the third quarter Sunday, the Patriots ran 15 plays and gained just 31 yards from scrimmage, coming away with just two first downs in the process. Along the way, the Jets were able to seize command -- Antonio Allen picked off Brady and returned it for a pick-six, while New York quarterback Geno Smith engineered an impressive eight-play, 52-yard drive that culminated with an 8-yard scramble to give the Jets their first lead of the second half late in the quarter. (For what it’s worth, the only third-quarter points from the Patriots this year have come on field goals against the Saints, Bucs and Falcons. Other than that, zeroes across the board.)
THE PATRIOTS HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY WITHOUT SOME OF THEIR DEFENSIVE STARS
At times, it was clearly a struggle for the New England defense, which had to play without Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly and Aqib Talib for the first time all season on Sunday against the Jets. There were breakdowns throughout -- most of which came in the third quarter -- but it’s clear that the personnel losses have forced them to hit the reset button when it comes to learning the tendencies of some of their teammates. Up front, the Patriots were able to cobble together multiple defensive fronts to disguise the fact that they were without Wilfork, but there were breakdowns in pass coverage when it came to Dont’a Hightower, who was replaced briefly by linebacker Dane Fletcher. In addition, even though Logan Ryan was able to come away with a first-half interception of Smith, there were major problems at times in the secondary when it came to penalties, communication and tackling -- Hightower and Marquice Cole (who got some playing time in place of Kyle Arrington) whiffed on a play at the goal line as Smith plunged into the end zone after an 8-yard run for a score. Smith is clearly a better QB than the one the Patriots faced in Week 2, and finished 17-for-33 for 233 yards, with one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI CAN KICK CLUTCH FIELD GOALS
Gostkowski has been just as accurate -- at least from a percentage standpoint -- over the first seven years of his career as his more famous predecessor Adam Vinatieri, but Vinatieri had a well-earned rep for delivering the clutch. Meanwhile, Gostokwski has never had the chance to deliver the same type of signature moment -- that’s not necessarily a knock on the Memphis product, he just hasn’t has as much of an opportunity. However, he showed a nice ability to come through with the game on the line Sunday when he knocked home the kick that sent the game into overtime, a 44-yarder down the middle with 16 seconds left in regulation that tied the game at 27. It joins the game-winner against Buffalo earlier this season, as well as his kick to help lift the Patriots over the Chargers in the 2006 AFC divisional playoff game as the three of the biggest made field goals of his career. But Gostkowski wasn’t the only special teamer who helped deliver a highlight -- Julian Edelman had a nifty 38-yard punt return in the second quarter that set up New England’s third and final touchdown of the day. In all, Edelman had three punt returns for 58 yards and a very impressive 19.3 yards per return average.
THEY HAVE TO FIGURE OUT A WAY TO BEAT THE JETS FRONT SEVEN
The New York front seven is legit, and showed why on Sunday. The Jets showed a real ability to get after Brady, but also generate a good push up the middle while slowing the New England run game. The Patriots appeared to be inconsistent at times when it came to pass protection -- Brady was able to stay clean for the bulk of the first half -- but Brady was sacked four times and the Jets were able to control the line of scrimmage for the bulk of the second half. In addition, the Patriots are 1-2 when they fail to run for 100 yards, and New York can boast of the fact that they were the only team this season to hold New England to under 100 yards rushing in both games. One of the clear points of emphasis for the Patriots in this one was winning the battle on first down -- the Jets came into the game with the best first-down defense in the league at 3.41 yards per play allowed on first down, In the first half, the Patriots won that battle, averaging 5.46 yards per play on first down. It was a far different story in the second half, as New England averaged 1.875 yards per play on first down in the third and fourth quarter and into OT.
THE YOUNG DEFENSIVE TACKLES ARE FIGURING THINGS OUT
The Chris Jones penalty will be the defining moment for the New England defensive line on Sunday, but at the end of the day, the grouping actually had a good afternoon. Chris Jones had a pair of sacks, while Chandler Jones had two sacks of his own. As a team, the Patriots were credited with seven quarterback hits, including three for Chris Jones. Overall, New England was doing its best to disguise some of its defensive deficiencies. They spent some time with Chris Jones, Marcus Forston and Joe Vellano up front in a 3-4 with Chandler Jones standing up. They also flashed a more traditional four-man front that had Chris Jones and Vellano as the defensive tackles and Chandler Jones and Ninkovich at their traditional defensive end spots. However, as was the case on the offensive side of the ball, there were breakdowns across the front when it came to the second half. The Patriots, who did an excellent job containing Smith early on, yielded six carries for 32 yards to the quarterback., who was able to pick up chunk yards on occasion when New England overran the play. In the end, there was more good than bad, particularly considering the group was without Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
IN THE END, THE PATRIOTS MISSED A CHANCE TO MAKE THINGS EASIER ON THEMSELVES
With the loss, the Patriots were denied a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division. The Bills beat the Dolphins on Sunday, and if New England had beaten New York, the Patriots could have been able to boast of a sweep against the Jets and a two-game lead in the division. But now, they’ve left the door open -- even if it is just a crack -- for the rest of the AFC East. As remarkable as it sounds, the Jets are now just a game back, and Miami comes to Foxboro next week 1 1/2 games behind the Patriots. Things will get easier for the New England offense, as Gronkowski continues to get reacclimated and the countdown begins to the return of Shane Vereen. But the Patriots missed an opportunity to take the first real step toward putting the rest of the division in their rearview mirror on Sunday. Only time will tell if that missed chance comes back to haunt them down the road.