By Tom E. Curran
CSNNE.com Patriots Insider Follow @tomecurran
FOXBORO - I don't know who said it first, but it's a line they like to use around Gillette Stadium: "You're either getting better or you're getting worse."That platitude was in practice Sunday afternoon. The Patriots - with their once sadly amusing defense and forgotten running game - bowed up on the blowhard New York Jets. And the Jets? Owners of a three-game losing streak and entering back-to-back games against teams coming off of their bye weeks, they may have played better than they did last week but their identity crisis seems to be just beginning. We'll get to that in a few paragraphs. First, let's look at what the Patriots were able to accomplish in improving to 4-1 (keeping pace with the powerful Bills). As opposed to the last time these two teams met, the Patriots were able to establish balance. Thirty-three throws, 35 runs, and 7-of-14 on third down. The two key drives they reeled off were an 11-play drive that covered 77 yards and consumed 4:12. That came in the third quarter when the Patriots lead was 17-14 and they hadn't put together a sustained drive that resulted in points since early in the second quarter. The second drive began with 7:14 remaining and the lead 27-21. A 13-play, 69-yard drive (54 coming on the ground from BenJarvus Green-Ellis) that chewed up 6:12 and ended with a game-icing field goal with 1:09 remaining. After weeks of deservedly being called a finesse team, the Patriots lined up and rammed the ball down the throats of an increasingly disinterested Jets defense.
Thats always huge," said tight end Rob Gronkowski. "You dont want to give them a chance to come back. Give them any small chance, any play, they can come right back and score a touchdown no matter what the play is. So you always want to close it out and not give them a chance . . . You just want to finish it off in the game and we did with the field goal.
In the playoffs last year, the Patriots spent gobs of time trying to process what the Jets were doing before the snap. Sunday, they were decisive and destructive.
"That was a big part of the win. I thought we were balanced," explained Tom Brady."Ran the clock out at the end, that was important. We needed that win. We have to run the ball. If they have a lot of DBs out there, then we have to run it. If they put big guys in, we still have to run it. You just cant throw the ball every single down against these guys, they make it too tough."
The Patriots were the tougher team Sunday. And Brady had a lot to do with that with getting the offense into the correct running play at the line.
"They give you a lot of different looks,"said Bill Belichick."They stem in and out of things and overload and then switch it and just change things up on you, so youve got to be careful about running plays that just have no chance. You want to stay out of those and try to give yourself something that you at least have an even fight, fair numbers on. That's the quarterbacks responsibility and a couple times we just got caught in it. They did a good job. They maneuvered in a way that we werent able to do that, but I thought he did a good job handling that."
At his locker after the game, Brady lamented the plays missed, the throws not made, the points left on the board. But it was - relatively speaking - an improvement for this offense even though it mustered fewer yards than in the first three weeks of this season.
Defensively? No griping. A group that was good for a 30-plus play per quarter didn't allow a play of more than 20 yards until the fourth quarter and there were only two of those.
It helped that Mark Sanchez was less than accurate and that Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schotteheimer had a curious day of playcalling (throwing on short yardage on the first three Jets' series with no success; never challenging the Patriots' corners on the outside where they've been vulnerable). But the Patriots responded to New York's proclamation that they would ground andor pound the football at them. The Jets made yards (25 carries, 97 yards), but their ineptitude on third down kept them from getting any flow.
"We knew coming into this game they were going to try to get the ground game going," said Vince Wilfork. "At times they did, but at times we buckled down. I think you just saw two teams today that play each other all the time and its always tough. When you play a division game, its always tough. Especially with the Jets. But you just saw two good football teams go at it. We know one another. You may see a few wrinkles, but they do what they do. They play physical. They challenged us this week and I think we rose to the occasion."
This defense hadn't done that to a great extent this season. Moments? Yes. A full game of it? No. But they did it against the Jets, a team that they really, truly revile.
"They were going to make plays, we were going to make plays, but we knew we had to hang in their tough and play good solid football and then we knew wed be ok. I think we did tonight," added Wilfork. "I think third down was a plus for us tonight. The yardage, no big plays- thats part of the most impressive stat for us. Like I said, we werent perfect, but its a step in the right direction."
And as the Patriots keep getting better, establishing an identity, the Jets are reeling.
Asked in the postgame if this is the toughest situation the Jets have faced, Rex Ryan said, "Its probably right there with them. You know, we are the only NFL team in history to go to the playoffs having overcome two three-game losing streaks. Weve been down that road before, but to get back to winning, you have to roll your sleeves up and get after it. And start working and preparing and believing in each other and we can turn the tide."
It's never a good sign when you're able to dredge up stats about how good your team is when it goes in the tank. Because, at some point, the time comes when that team finds that the best way to respond to three-game losing streaks is to avoid them. The Jets aren't there yet. Their head coach may know that there is no switch to flip, but the annual preseason victory parades and proclamations are eventually going to backfire.