It wasn’t until the game ticked inside the two-minute warning that the Patriots’ offense managed to gain more than 15 yards on an offensive snap, at least partially the result of some brutal struggles along the offensive line against a talented Jets front. Meanwhile the Patriots coaxed only one turnover from a New York offense that had given the ball away more than all but four AFC teams.
So the easy assumption would be that New England was lacking big plays on its visit to MetLife Stadium.
Except big plays are exactly what won the Pats a 17-16 decision, a first-round postseason bye, and moved them within a victory of clinching home-field advantage throughout the forthcoming conference tournament.
“We did a lot of things tonight well. Some things we didn’t do so well, but it seems like in critical moments we really executed at a high level,” defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said afterward. “Every chance we’ve got, we have to take advantage of it. Guys just elevated their level of play, and it helped us walk away with a ‘W’ on the road.”
Big plays aren’t simply long passes, or breakaway runs, or ball-jarring hits, or spectacular interceptions. Those certainly fit the description. But in a low-scoring, somewhat-ugly, back-and-forth divisional battle like that waged between the Patriots and Jets on Sunday, big plays tend to be as much about timing and seizing opportunities as anything else. And that’s where the Pats separated themselves, albeit by the narrowest of margins, in the former Meadowlands.
This wasn’t a game where Rob Gronkowski carried the team like he carries defenders, the star tight end scoring once, but totaling just 31 yards on his six catches. They couldn’t get by on the brilliance of Tom Brady, whose offense compiled a season-low 231 yards. And it wasn’t as though the Patriots’ secondary was especially impressive against embattled Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who looked respectable in throwing for 210 yards of his own.
Rather, this was a game where the Patriots got a variety of contributions from a variety of contributors, and the combination enabled the club to enjoy the 43rd game-winning drive of Brady’s regular-season career.
Danny Amendola, playing the role of a concussed Julian Edelman, used a 39-yard punt return to put the Patriots in position for the game’s first score early in the second quarter. Then, late in the fourth quarter, he took a quick pass to the flat and plowed his way for seven yards on third-and-7, the final gritty inch ultimately what extended the drive that the Pats used to kill the clock.
When the Patriots offense finally got into a rhythm, its success was fueled by the efforts of Shane Vereen, who gained 37 yards on a single series, and Tim Wright, whose 12-yard haul picked up a third-and-3 with New England moving toward a momentum-turning field goal.
Then in the fourth quarter, with the Pats again marching, Brandon LaFell looked to be falling down as he came out of his route on third-and-10, but he managed to stay with the throw, and snagged Brady’s throw to move the chains. Three plays later, Jonas Gray slammed the go-ahead touchdown over the goal line.
The Patriots got the ball for that possession thanks to a Jamie Collins interception, but the linebacker really did the easy part after impending pressure from Chandler Jones forced Smith to make a particularly poor throw. Collins’ best play — and perhaps just as big of a play — actually came earlier in the quarter, when he made a nice tackle in a one-on-one confrontation with a New York back, stunting a Jets drive at the Pats’ 5, and forcing the hosts to settle for a field goal.
“We got a number of big plays today defensively,” but none was bigger than the two that came in succession with about five minutes remaining in regulation, just after Brady was intercepted in enemy territory.
At the Patriots’ 24, the Jets were facing third-and-4, when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia dialed up a call he hadn’t made all day. He sent Rob Ninkovich around the edge, and when both New York blockers went with him, Dont’a Hightower shot the gap and dropped Smith for a 10-yard loss.
After a timeout, the Jets opted to try a field goal that could’ve put them ahead — but needing an extra 10 yards because of the sack, Nick Folk needed to boot it lower than he would’ve otherwise. Before the snap, Wilfork noticed a “soft A-gap,” then penetrated the opening as Folk stepped into his kick. The big lineman got just deep enough to get his fingertip on the ball, which landed well short of the uprights. And left the Pats two first downs from victory.
“I felt like the team needed to make a lot of plays in the fourth quarter to win, and they did. We made them in all three phases,” said Belichick, whose 12-3 team can seal home-field with a Denver loss tonight, or a win next week against Buffalo. “A lot of key plays at the end that our players came through on, just one after another after another. From the turnover to the touchdown to the sack, long field goal, blocked field goal, running out the clock. We made the plays we needed to make at the end of the game. That’s a credit to the players.”
It was while running out the clock that the Patriots finally gained more than 15 yards. They needed only one in order to ice the game, but Brandon Bolden got that easily around the right edge, and kept on running up the sideline. If he hadn’t gone so far, it would’ve been the Jets who had the seven longest gains of the day.
But, again, don’t confuse those with the biggest plays. Because it was the Patriots who made those.
“That’s what a team is. We all count on each other,” Belichick said. “Each guy’s got an opportunity to help us in one way or another. You never know when it is, or how it’s going to turn out, but when we need ’em, we need ’em. And they continue to step up. Different guys, different situations, different phases of the game, but we played good complementary football in the second half.”
“It’s about making the critical plays,” Brady said, “and we found a way to do it.”
Dave D’Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is email@example.com.