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.