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October 22. 2012 9:58PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: On the bright side ...


New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski celebrates his touchdown against the New York Jets during the first quarter of their NFL football game in Foxborough Sunday. (REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi)
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- IN THE MOMENTS after Rob Ninkovich fell on the fumble he forced, and the Patriots escaped with a 29-26 overtime win over the rival Jets, there was a discernible difference in moods between those within the home locker room and those who were outside.

Among the masses, there seemed a feeling of relief trumping any sense of exultation, 68,752 exhaling together as New England somehow survived another late-game collapse and narrowly avoided what would’ve been this season’s most crippling loss to date.

But inside those hallowed walls they were perfectly content — emotionally in the moment, at least — to overlook the fact that a 10-point became a three-point deficit in a matter of four fourth-quarter minutes, and had Jets receiver Stephen Hill caught a pass at his chest they might never have had the chance to answer New York’s late field goal.

“A win’s a win,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said after scoring two touchdowns. “I’ll take it whatever way. You can win some ugly and you can win some pretty and it just doesn’t matter. We work together as a team and we got the victory.”

“It was a great team win,” added defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. ”It showed a lot from these New England Patriots, just fighting in overtime. Guys banged up, guys tired, offense going out, putting the drive together, defense taking the field and ending the game on a sack fumble. That was good football.”

It wasn’t all good, of course, even before the lead evaporated and the Pats were forced to scramble from behind. Receiver Brandon Lloyd was the target of nine passes and came away with as many offensive pass interference penalties as receptions (one each). Mark Sanchez was made to look eminently capable, completing 68 percent of his throws for 328 yards. The defense, already league-worst by that measure, yielded six more plays of at least 20 yards.

But back in sole possession of first place in the AFC East, the Patriots were determined to focus on the positive afterward — and that’s not a feeling without some merit even beyond the “a win is a win” result. Here’s a look at some areas and individuals the Patriots deserve to feel good about on their flight to London:

-- The AFC landscape. Not only did Sunday’s win put the Pats a half-game up in the East, and improve them to 2-0 in divisional play, but it also made them just the third team in the conference with a winning record. The other two are Houston and Baltimore, the former which got crushed in Week 6 before beating the latter by 30 in Week 7. Parity means New England — especially at 4-1 in AFC play — is still very much in position to compete for a playoff bye.

-- Ninkovich. Perhaps the most underrated Patriot, his versatility helped them survive the loss of linebacker Dont’a Hightower for a couple of weeks, and his playmaking ability has become a vital part of the defense. There are games when he is invisible, but more often are the games where his impact is obvious, like Sunday, when he caused his fourth fumble in four weeks to deliver the Pats a walk-off win.

-- Jermaine Cunningham. Holding Sanchez’s feet when Ninkovich jarred the ball loose was the former second-round pick who is beginning to emerge in his third pro season. He has a ways to go in terms of being a complete player, but he’s demonstrated a knack for rushing the passer and as one of the team’s offseason award winners he has shown the commitment required to keep getting better. “He’s really improved as a player,” coach Bill Belichick said. “He deserves a lot of credit because of how hard he’s worked.”

-- Gronkowski. Only once in the previous month had Gronkowski been targeted as often as he was when Tom Brady threw to him nine times on Sunday, and his six catches, two touchdowns and 78 yards are all good signs for the Pats. It is clear that stopping Gronkowski has become a priority for opposing defenses this season, and the fact he was finding free space so frequently — particularly in the red area — is an encouraging indication.

-- Stephen Gostkowski. He followed up his miss of a would-be game-winner against Arizona with two more misses, so Belichick had to like the fact that his kicker twice delivered in the moment against the Jets. With a 43-yard buzzer beater at the end of regulation, and a 48-yard boot on the first series of overtime, any question over his self-confidence in the clutch went sailing into the sky along with the ball.

-- Wilfork. Simply put, the brilliance continues. The dominance of his physical presence was on prime display when he had pushed his way into the backfield practically by the time Sanchez could attempt to give the ball to Shonn Greene on the mishandling that produced New England’s first safety in six years, but it was hardly the day’s lone display. The defensive tackle is playing at a level this season that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

-- The offensive line. Logan Mankins was inactive and Dan Connolly went out with an illness after one series, pressing Nick McDonald into service at right guard and Donald Thomas on the left side. Yet Brady looked fairly comfortable, getting hit just twice and sacked only once in the 43 times he dropped back to pass. In addition to that, only one of the Pats’ 31 rush attempt went for negative yardage — so all in all it was a solid performance from a makeshift group.

-- The defense’s final two possessions. The overall numbers weren’t great, and it’s almost inexcusable to let the Jets gain 132 yards in a span of 20 plays to get the 10 points they needed to tie the game. But ultimately it’s about making plays when it matters most, and the defense got the ball back to Brady with time by forcing the Jets to go three-and-out when Devin McCourty fumbled at his own 18 in a tie game, then by getting a turnover in OT. As badly as they’d failed before, they came up big later.

And, in the end, that’s why they escaped with a positive result.

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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