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October 23. 2011 10:50PM

Patriots Notebook: Pats on schedule to reach goals

By rallying with 17 unanswered points in the second half, the Jets kept themselves alive the AFC East on Sunday. With a 27-21 triumph, they improved to 4-3 on the season, avoided falling below .500, and managed to stay within a win of first place in the division.

And believe it or not, New York’s victory was actually good news for the New England Patriots.

The victim of the Jets’ comeback was the Chargers, and as of the kick off to Sunday’s action San Diego was one of three AFC teams with just one loss to this point. When they were beaten, it left only the Patriots and Raves with a single blemish — and meant the Pats will come out of their bye week controlling their own destiny when it comes to deciding who gets the two first-round playoff byes.

The downside, of course, is that the Jets continued coming back to life a bit. When they left Foxborough two weeks ago they were a wounded bunch, owners of a disappointing 2-3 record, losers of three straight, and looking largely incapable offensively.

Last week they shut down the Dolphins (still winless) to right themselves with a 24-6 win, then Sunday they used a much maligned aerial attack to come from behind against a Chargers team that began the day second in the league in terms of passing yards yielded per game (179.6) and with a 7-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The Jets relied on their ground-and-pound game to move the ball down the field, with Shonn Greene rushing for 112 yards, and Mark Sanchez throwing for just 173. But when they got in position to convert on their opportunities, they kept the ball in Sanchez’s hands — and he then put it in the hands of a red-zone threat with whom Patriots fans are all too familiar.

From just outside the goal line, the New York quarterback found Plaxico Burress for scores of 3, 4 and 3 yards, the last of those strikes putting the Jets ahead for the first time midway through the fourth quarter, and ultimately proving the difference maker.

Because of the way they play defense, the Jets become infinitely more dangerous if Burress’ big day becomes the start of his integration, and if the dimension he adds with his size makes their offense formidable enough to win games moving forward.

But by going 5-1 to this point, and beating both the Chargers and Jets en route, the Patriots have put themselves in a position where even if New York does make a run in the East, New England is still on ground in the bigger conference picture that will determine who makes the playoffs.

Cincinnati and Buffalo were both idle on Sunday, each at 4-2, and Pittsburgh pounded Arizona to get itself to 5-2. But otherwise every AFC team is either a division leader, or now has at least three losses. Of those, Oakland (4-3) would lose a tiebreaker because of their head-to-head loss to the Pats, Houston (4-3) may wind up the default winner of a subpar South, while Kansas City, Cleveland and Tennessee (all 3-3) have a lot to prove before any of them can really be considered threats to the Patriots’ playoff hopes.

Those hopes can get even brighter if the Pats can take wins in at least two the next three weeks, when they go Pittsburgh and the Jets, with a home game against the Giants sandwiched in between. After that, New England will have seven games to play, four of which will be at Gillette Stadium, and all of them contests in which they’re likely to be favored.

After facing the Jets on Sunday night, Nov. 13, they host a Chiefs team that even after three straight wins has been outscored 150-105 on the season; they travel to the underachieving, 2-4 Eagles; they host the winless Colts; they travel to the quarterback-deficient Redskins (3-3); they go to Tim Tebow’s Broncos (2-4); then they finish with home games against the 0-6 Dolphins and the 4-2 Bills.

At this stage, Buffalo is the only team in that bunch with more wins than losses.

And that’s why seeing the Jets win, at the expense of the Chargers, wasn’t a bad way for the Patriots to spend their Sunday. After early round failures the past two years, this season is about advancing in the playoffs. It’s about getting to the Super Bowl. It’s about winning the whole thing.

The upcoming schedule has the potential to help the Patriots give themselves every advantage to make a run at those goals come January. A bye would be the biggest of those advantages. And with San Diego’s loss, there’s nobody standing in New England’s way.

Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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