Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook -- AFC feast: Second-quarter scoring blitz grounds Jets
Those fears disappeared in the span of 52 seconds during the second quarter. Because after that, the second half didn't much matter.
Beginning with an 83-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Shane Vereen, then followed by Steve Gregory's return of a fumble on defense, and Julian Edelman's return of a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots scored 21 points while running just one offensive play - grabbing the game by gizzard and making the Jets look like total turkeys.
That sequence sandwiched between two other Brady touchdown tosses, by the time the quarter was over the Patriots had scored 35 points - tied for the most any NFL team has scored in a period since 1983 - and New England was well on its way to celebrating the holiday with a 49-19 win that gave Bill Belichick his 200th career coaching victory.
Though he'd probably never admit it publicly, it had to feel good for him to hit that mark against the Jets, given the rivalry he's had with that franchise since he broke his contract with that team in order to pursue the coaching opening in Foxborough almost 13 years ago. And on the other side it had to make a bad night, in the middle of a bad season, sting even more for the club's current regime.
When Rex Ryan was hired as the Jets' head coach, he came in with guns blazing and pointed toward the Patriots. He said he wasn't there to kiss Belichick's rings and made no secret that he intended to put an end to New England's stranglehold reign atop the AFC East.
But Thursday night the team he's envied since his arrival may have been the team that delivered the blow that could ultimately prompt the Jets to change course at season's end. After Thursday, New York is now 4-7, meaning it would likely need to go unbeaten the rest of the way to have any chance of not missing the playoffs for a second straight year. (And even at that, they'd need some help to make the postseason at 9-7.)
For the first quarter Thursday night, there wasn't much apparent difference between the division leaders and the loudmouth also-rans. The Patriots missed a scoring chance when Stephen Gostkowski hooked a 39-yard field goal, and the Jets failed to capitalize on a promising drive when Gregory stepped in and intercepted Mark Sanchez deep in Pats territory.
But that all changed in the second quarter. And quickly. On the first snap of the period, Brady hit Wes Welker from 3 yards out to cap a 15-play, 84-yard drive. That made the score 7-0 - but it wouldn't stay there for long.
The Jets moved the ball again on their next series, though as Shonn Greene attempted to reach the ball beyond the sticks in an attempted conversion of fourth-and-1, Brandon Spikes whacked it out of his hands and Gregory scooped it. On the very next play, Vereen swung out of the backfield and Brady found him in the left flat with nobody between the running back and the goal line. Eighty-three uninterrupted and untouched yards later he reached the end zone.
Then, like they did last week against the Colts, defense and special teams took over the scoring load. On the second play of New York's next series, Sanchez got mixed up and ran directly into the back of one of his linemen, fumbling as he did. Again it was Gregory on the spot, scooping the loose ball and scampering 32 yards to the end zone.
Then on the subsequent kickoff, Devin McCourty laid a lick on Joe McKnight, and the ball popped directly into the arms of Edelman, who carried it 25 yards to paydirt. Just like that a game that was scoreless after the first quarter, and 7-0 with 9:44 to go in the second, was 28-0 with 8:51 left before the half.
Less than six minutes later, Brady hit Edelman for a 56-yard touchdown on third-and-5, and the disgruntled boos of the restless filling MetLife Stadium said that the rout was officially on.
The Jets actually scored the next 12 points, kicking a field goal before the half, getting a safety when Stevan Ridley committed a chop block in the end zone, and finally scoring a touchdown when Bilal Powell plowed in from 4 yards out. But the Patriots made sure New York never really started to believe they had a shot of coming back.
New England bridged the third and fourth quarters with a 17-play drive that covered 87 yards, and was capped by a 1-yard Brady sneak. Then 55 seconds later, after Rob Ninkovich recovered a fumble, a Brady-to-Welker hookup and a 9-yard Ridley run opened the Pats advantage up to 49-12.
Sanchez found Dustin Keller for a garbage-time touchdown, though before then Brady went past 300 yards passing, Ridley moved to the precipice of another 100-yard performance, and the team - playing for the first time without Rob Gronkowski after the tight end broke his forearm on Sunday, and also missing Pro Bowl offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer - moved to the cusp of scoring 50 points yet again.
Aaron Hernandez returned, and that helped, of course. But the importance of his two catches paled in comparison to the five turnovers they forced. The 73 percent success rate on third down. The nearly 500 yards of offense.
And those 52 seconds that allowed New England to go to bed happy.
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Dave D'Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio