Patriots rip Jets, take command in AFC East

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Patriots rip Jets, take command in AFC East

The stage was set for the type of meltdown that had become all too familiar this season.

Scoring, summary, statistics

The Patriots led the Jets, 23-16, early in the fourth quarter of their AFC East showdown Sunday night, but their already thin defense -- with such unfamiliar names as Jeff Tarpanian and Sterling Moore in the starting lineup -- had been weakened further by injuries to Devin McCourty and James Ihedigbo. Depending on the 'D' to nail this one down, not exactly a recipe for success this year in New England under the best of circumstances, hardly seemed like the best path to victory.

Enter Tom Brady.

Knowing the Pats needed a) points to make it a two-possession game and b) to take time off the clock, their All-Everything quarterback did both. Thirteen plays, 84 yards, and nearly seven minutes later, the Patriots had the touchdown that made it 30-16 and sealed the deal. It set the stage for a 37-16 victory that broke the Pats' two-game losing streak and, suddenly, puts New England back in the drivers' seat in the division race.

The Patriots are now 6-3, while the Jets -- and the Bills, who were mauled in Dallas -- are 5-4. In addition, the Pats own the tie-breaker over New York by virtue of having swept the season series. And the dark clouds that had smothered the region after two consecutive dispiriting losses have suddenly lifted.

"One game won't win you much," said coach Bill Belichick said, "but it's a good win and we're certainly happy to have it."

"It's very sweet," Brady said, "getting this win."

The defense played well by any standard and VERY well by its own. The Patriots sacked Mark Sanchez five times (Andre Carter had 4 12 of them, a single-game franchise record), held New York to 4-of-11 on third-down tries, and even put up some points of its own on a 12-yard pick six by linebacker Rob Ninkovich for the game's final score.
"Bill challenged us last week," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork. "We took his challenge and it showed tonight."But it was Brady (26-of-39, 329 yards, 3 touchdowns) and the offense who turned the tide in this one.

The Patriots took possession at their own 16 with 14:50 to play and a seven-point lead. Brady had begun working the no-huddle during the Pats' previous series, and he started it again on this drive. It had the double-barrel effect of preventing the Jets from subbing into different defensive packages and also tiring out the defenders who couldn't get off the field, and both were evident as the Pats marched methodically down the field.

And methodical it was, since there was no one big play. The biggest gain was for 13 yards but, other than a three-yard loss by Kevin Faulk on an attempted sweep, every play gained yardage. They finally got the payoff when, from the 8-yard line, Brady hit Deion Branch with the touchdown that made it 30-14 with 8:10 to play . . . and, for all intents and purposes, ended the game.

"We took advantage of some plays when we went fast," said Brady.

Prior to that it had been close, but the Pats slowly took command in the second half.

Leading 13-9, they got the first break of the second half when they recovered Joe McKnight's fumble on a punt return at the Jets 13. A 14-yard touchdown toss from Brady to Rob Gronkowski, which would have been their second scoring connection of the night, was overturned on review when the officials ruled Gronkowski had gone out of bounds before catching the pass, so the Pats settled for a 27-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski -- his third field goal of the game -- and a 16-9 lead.

They created the second break, as Ninkovich intercepted a tipped pass by Sanchez at the Pats 25 and returned it to the New England 43. It took Brady, working the no-huddle to perfection, eight plays to march the Pats 57 yards for the touchdown that made it 23-9. The last play: A five-yard pass to Gronkowski, making up for the TD he'd had taken away on the last series.

The Jets answered with a 10-play, 71-yard drive that was capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Plaxico Burress on the first play of the fourth quarter, making it a one-score game at 23-16.

And then Brady and Company took over.

They'd been wasteful and unproductive for the first 28 12 minutes of the game, but, trailing 9-6, finally began clicking on its final drive of the second quarter. The Pats took possession on their own 20 with 1:20 to go and efficiently marched 80 yards in 1:11 for the touchdown that gave them a 13-9 halftime lead.

Brady -- who'd had a miserable half to that point, completing only 7 of 16 passes for 127 yards -- started off with quick strikes of 12 yards to Gronkowski and 14 yards to Wes Welker. On first-and-10 from their own 46, he hooked up with Gronkowski for 25 yards (and the Pats retained possession on an officials' review, after the referees originally ruled Gronkowski had fumbled when, in fact, the ground had caused the ball to come loose).

A face-mask penalty against Jets safety Eric Smith on the next play moved the Pats to the New York 16, and there it seemed they'd stay; they were soon facing a third-and-12 from the 18 with 32 seconds left. But Brady, going without a timeout, found Gronkowski down the middle for an 18-yard touchdown, putting New England back in front.

It was all much more productive than the Pats' last offensive series. The Jets had gradually begun winning the ball-control battle -- the Pats' first five drives started on their own 20, 27, 39, 7 and 8 -- and it paid off at last when Jamaal Westerman, blowing past Sebastian Vollmer and Danny Woodhead on a third-and-13 from 5, forced Brady to intentionally ground the ball fron the end zone, forcing a safety that cut New England's lead to 6-2.

The Jets took possession on a free kick and went 65 yards in 7 plays, scoring on a two-yard run by Sanchez and moving ahead, 9-6.

Prior to that, the Pats' defense had done sterling work in holding New York scoreless. The Jets had moved easily on the game's first drive, reaching the New England 6, but the Patriots stiffened and Nick Folk flubbed a 24-yard field goal.

The Patriots' first two drives stalled in New York territory, but first-quarter field goals of 50 and 36 yards by Gostkowski gave them a 6-0 lead.

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

Butler, Brown set to square off again in AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The general consensus has been that when it comes to defending Antonio Brown, or any No. 1 receiver for that matter, the Patriots have two options: Use their top corner Malcolm Butler in man-to-man coverage or double-team him.

There are benefits to each. Butler has the speed an quickness to effectively mirror Brown's routes. Meanwhile, Logan Ryan has found recent success in teaming up with teammates to slow down top options like Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, who was the target when Devin McCourty broke up a fourth-quarter pass that resulted in a Ryan interception last week. 

Both the Steelers and the Patriots seemed to indicate that they knew which way Bill Belichick will lean this weekend. 

"[I] assume maybe that [Butler] will follow AB around," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He’s a guy that really has just come into the role of being pretty much a shutdown corner."

"[Butler] takes this as a big challenge," Patriots defensive captain Dont'a Hightower said. "We obviously know what Antonio Brown is. He’s arguably the best wide receiver in the league. We know what kind of matchup threat he poses. We expect Malcolm to take advantage of that, and I know he’s ready to rise up to that challenge." 

But Brown -- named a First-Team All-Pro this season after reeling in 106 passes for 1,284 yards and 12 touchdowns -- has the ability to make one singular plan of attack obsolete, eventually. The Patriots will have to throw different looks at him to keep him guessing, keep Roethlisberger thinking, and keep their connection somewhat under control.

Here are a few of the options . . . 

COVER-1

In Week 7 against the Steelers, this seemed to be the coverage of choice for the Patriots. They used Butler to shadow Brown all over the field for much of the game while one safety patrolled the deep middle portion of the field.

The third-year corner saw nine targets sent his way while in coverage of Brown. Five were caught for 94 yards.

Though the numbers looked pretty good for Brown fantasy owners, Butler had one of his stronger games of the season, making an interception in the end zone while draped all over his man. That was followed up by a celebrattion that mocked Brown's staple touchdown dance.

Brown and Butler have a relationship after seeing each other over the last two seasons and shooting a Visa commerical together earlier this year, and he sounded fired up to go against Brown again this weekend.

"Most definitely I respect that guy," Butler said of Brown this week. "Great player obviously, and (I) just love to compete and he loves to compete also."

Though Butler found himself on what looked like an island in plenty of situations back in Week 7, the Patriots also had their deep safeties (McCourty and Duron Harmon) keep a close eye on Brown as well.

But on Brown's longest catch of the game, a 51-yarder over the middle of the field, having a safety there didn't mean much due to a smart play-design by offensive coordinator Todd Haley. 

Brown was followed by Butler all the way across the field, and though Harmon may have been in position to help over the top, he had to respect the deep over route run by Steelers burner Darrius Heyward-Bey. By the time Harmon got to Brown -- Heyward-Bey actually helped slow down Harmon by screening him deep down the field -- it was too late. 

IMMEDIATE DOUBLE-TEAM

There were other instances -- like the very first third-and-long of the game for the Steelers -- when the Patriots doubled Brown off the snap with Butler and McCourty. With a player of Brown's caliber, it's not question of either single him with Butler or double him. Doubles will simply be part of the deal, in all likelihood, whether Butler's on him or not.

Back in Week 7, the Patriots were burned by Steelers secondary options on a couple of occasions when they quickly removed Brown from the equation.

The first time Brown was doubled off the snap (above), Eric Rowe was left with Heyward-Bey in a one-on-one situation and was beaten for a 14-yard touchdown in the back corner of the end zone. The second time (below), Heyward-Bey ran across the field with Rowe trailing him, scoring once again from 14 yards out.

A holding penalty negated the second score, but it seemed clear what the Patriots were trying to tell the Steelers in those situations: "Go ahead and beat us with someone else, but we won't let you do it with Brown."

Even when Brown inevitably makes plays despite the extra attention -- the Steelers will run rub routes, screens and reverses simply to get the football in his hands -- it will be incumbent upon everyone to help limit his yards after the catch, McCourty explained this week.

"Brown is a great player and Malcolm has done a great job but it’s going to be all of us," McCourty said. "All of us have to help out and make sure we try to limit him whether that’s getting everyone to the ball, whether it’s a short pass [or] intermediate pass, whether he breaks a tackle and he’s trying to reverse, we all just got to have a high sense of urgency for him and alertness and try to get to him before he’s able to break the 50-60-yard play. I think defensively we all understand that and we’re going to work on that all week."

COVER-2, 2-MAN, COVER-4, ETC., ETC., ETC...

There are plenty of other defenses that the Patriots may choose to run in order to try to take away one of the game's best play-makers. If they feel as though Heyward-Bey or Eli Rogers or another teammate of Brown's is worthy of garnering special attention from one of their safeties, they could opt for more split-safety looks -- with both McCourty and Harmon deep -- than they did in Week 7.

The fact that it's Ben Roethlisberger behind center now -- and not Landry Jones, as it was in Week 7 -- may also help dictate coverages and encourage the Patriots to be more vigilent against the explosive play. 

Bottom line: Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia will employ more than one look when they take on the best passing game they've faced all season. Oftentimes that'll mean two sets of eyes on Brown, and even then that's not guaranteed to stop him.

"It's tough because the thing about Antonio Brown and players of that caliber is that they're used to the multiple attention," Ryan said. "He gets doubled, he gets attention. Every team tries to do it, and he still has the numbers he has because he's a great player. That's what great players do.

"We just need to execute a little better than what other teams do. It's possible. It's not impossible. But he's not a guy you're going to completely eliminate from the game, and we've just got to corral him as a team."