FOXBORO -- Geno Smith outplaying Tom Brady? Preposterous. But statistically -- thanks to the butter-fingered Patriots receiving corps -- he did just that Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
The Jets controlling the ball for eight more minutes than the Pats? Impossible. But -- with the bumbling New England offense converting only 4 of 18 third-down chances -- that's exactly what happened.
More passing yards? More rushing yards? More first downs? The Jets? Unthinkable. But -- honest -- check the sheet.
So how in the world did the Patriots escape with a 13-10 victory before a no-doubt stunned national audience watching via the NFL Network?
Defense, that's how.
For one of the very few times since the days when seasons in Foxboro ended with Lombardi Trophies and confetti showers, the Patriots' defense outplayed the offense. The defense made the stops when they had to be made, forced four turnovers (including three in the fourth quarter) and ferociously protected the slimmest of leads while a Brady-led offense stumbled through one of its most inefficient performances in a decade.
The Pats managed only nine first downs and a total of 232 yards total offense, and converted an abysmal 22 percent of their third-down chances. Brady -- 19-of-39 for 185 yards -- completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in a game for the first time since 2009.
Much of the trouble can be pinned on his inexperienced receiving corps, specifically Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. They combined for just five receptions, dropped more balls than they caught, and also ran ragged routes that led to Brady throwing the ball either well in front of them or behind them. Brady's frustration was palpable; he waved his arms, rolled his eyes, and shouted in anger.
"I think I have to do a better job on my body language," a somber Brady admitted after the game. "It's definitely not a strong point right now."
By the end of the night he was zeroing in almost exclusively on Julian Edelman, who wound up with 13 of Brady's 19 completions. Still, the Patriots weren't able to add to their lead or even put together the kind of time-consuming drives that could have put the game away.
So that left it up to the defense.
"We welcome it," said linebacker Rob Ninkovich.
"We got to be proud of that," agreed nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
The offense appeared on its way to a 35-point performance early on, coming away with 10 points on two of its first two possessions. On the first drive, Brady found Dobson alone in the defensive backfield on the opening drive and hit him in stride with a 39-yard touchdown pass. It was the first NFL reception and the first NFL touchdown catch for Dobson . . . and, to be frank, the highlight of his night.
Later in the quarter, Smith found Stephen Hill deep across the middle for a 33-yard gain. But Hill fumbled as he was being tackled by Kyle Arrington and the ball was scooped up by Devin McCourty, who returned it all the way to the Jets' 3-yard line.
But, in a harbinger of things to come, the Patriots couldn't punch it in and had to settle for a 21-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski and a 10-0 lead.
One of the few successful drives of the night for the Jets -- an 11-play, 61-yard march helped in great part by a roughing-the-passer penalty against Chandler Jones -- ended in a 37-yard field goal by Nick Folk that cut New England's lead to 10-3. A nine-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Clyde Gates just prior to the field goal was overturned when replays showed the ball popped out as he went to the turf. The Pats answered that with a 30-yard Gostkowski field goal that put them back in front by 10, 13-3. But Gostkowski missed a 43-yarder as the half expired, after an apparent 25-yard, Brady-to-Thompkins TD pass was overturned on replay, as New England missed another chance to pad its lead.
At that point the Patriot offense went into hibernation, and the pressure on the Pats' defense increased after Bilal Powell's three-yard touchdown run with 5:05 left in the third quarter made it 13-10.
But the 'D' was up to the challenge. First, Aqib Talib intercepted a pass intended for Clyde Gates at the Patriots 27 with 11:22 left in the game. Then Alfonzo Dennard picked off Smith at the Pats' 31 with 4:29 left. And, finally, Talib nabbed a Smith pass at midfield with 48 seconds to go, ending New York's last chance.
Nick Mangold took a shot at Talib's knees out of bounds after the play, leading to a more-spirited-than-normal scuffle that resulted in the ejections of two Jets (Willie Colon and D'Brickashaw Ferguson). It also led to an angry Bill Belichick screaming at Mangold, prompting the Jets' offensive lineman to comment: ""He got heated about it. I was a little surprised by that. I figured he’d have a little bit more poise."
It was a strange ending to a strange night. It ended the way it almost always ends -- after all, the Pats have now won 12 straight against AFC East opponents -- but the defense bailing out the offense? It just doesn't happen very often.
"Our defense is winning games for us, and offensively, we're doing just enough," said guard Logan Mankins. "We have a lot of improvement to do.
"When we improve, we'll do a lot better.'