Patriots Nip Jets In OT, Reclaim First Place In AFC East

It was Rob Ninkovich’s strip sack of Mark Sanchez in overtime that sealed the Patriots’ fourth win of the season on Sunday, 29-26.

There’s nothing quite like a rivalry football game in Foxboro on a crisp late Sunday afternoon in October. And there’s definitely nothing better than when the Patriots sport their red ’80s throwback jerseys.

The league’s best offense hosted the Jets and their head coach and defensive genius, Rex Ryan in a battle for first place in the AFC East on Sunday.

As if the rivalry and division lead being on the line weren’t enough, it doesn’t get much better than these two coaches. Along with Ryan, Bill Belichick is another mind game guru and it was sure to be a battle of head games.

Mix in a little Tim Tebowand the possibility that he might see time at running back and we knew we would be in for an exciting afternoon in Foxboro.

If you didn’t want an exciting lead with some wacky plays and a surprise ending, then, well, you got one anyway.

The Jets offense seemed to figure it out in last week’s blowout over the Colts when they took the ball out of Mark Sanchez’s hands. The run game dominated last week and Shonn Greene had a career day, but against the Patriots secondary, or lack thereof, Sanchez sought to take advantage. He almost did, but the Patriots hung on for the victory.

Even though they didn’t quite make it to 30 points, they got close enough and finally found a way to win one of these close games by a final score of 29-26.

It started out looking like the Jets and their lackluster receiving group would have no problem with the struggling Patriots’ secondary. Aided by a red zone flag on Ras-I Dowling and a couple of big plays to Jeremy Kerley as well as a couple of positive plays for Tebow, Greene carried it in from a yard out and the Jets took a 7-0 lead after a long first drive. Kyle Arrington got worked a couple of times on the drive.

Then, something amazing happened. On only his eighth career kickoff return, Devin McCourty took it 104 yards to tie the game at seven. Tom Brady and the offense had hardly done anything, but the game was tied midway through the first despite the Jets strong special teams play. The return touchdown marked the second longest in New England history and the team’s first since 2010 when Brandon Tate took one all the way. Ellis Hobbs took one back 108 yards in 2008.

Just when it seemed the Jets had the momentum, McCourty snatched it away and the defense forced the Jets to go three and out. Brady drove down the field and found Rob Gronkowski with a perfect throw in the corner of the endzone from 17 yards out. New England scored two TD’s in four and a half minutes and Brady recorded a touchdown pass in his 39th straight game, remaining ten behind Drew Brees, who threw a touchdown in his 49th straight game earlier in the day. The first quarter ended with New England driving and on top 14-7, but the drive would stall and the Pats would be forced to punt.

Have no fear though. The Sanchez-lead Jets would give the ball right back along with a couple of points. A botched handoff deep in their own territory forced Sanchez to kick the ball out of the back of the endzone and just like that it was 16-7, but a 3rd down sack after the free kick prevented any further damage. The safety was the Patriots’ first since Opening Day in 2006 when Ty Warren sacked Bills quarterback J.P. Losman in the endzone. They had gone 102 games since their last safety, the second longest active drought in the NFL.

New England scored with its offense, defense and special teams in the 1st half. Rookie, Alfonzo Dennard, then intercepted a Sanchez pass that would have come down inside the five yard line on the Jets’ next drive. The pick was the first of Dennard’s career.

After a couple of stalled drives for each team, Nick Folk connected on a 54-yard field goal to cut the lead to six at the half and ensure the Jets would get the ball for two straight possessions after only two seconds were left on the clock after the kick.

Folk capitlaized again to open the 3rd, this time on a 21-yarder after Sanchez and the Jets offense couldn’t get any further than the New England 3-yard line on the first drive of the 2nd half. The Patriots’ lead was down to three at 16-13. Sanchez appeared more comfortable on the 11-play, 65-yard drive than he did in the 1st half as he drove his team down the field in just under five and a half minutes.

Wes Welker, who was having a quiet day up until that point, caught a 1st down pass from Brady for his 700th career reception on the ensuing drive. Later in the drive, after an Aaron Hernandez fumble was reversed and two plays from inside the five failed, Brady hit Gronkowski in the endzone for his second touchdown catch of the day. After a 7-minute drive, the Patriots lengthened their lead to 23-13.

This marked the 10th multi-touchdown game of Gronk’s career and no one has had more of those than him since 2010. He finished the day with six catches for 78 yards and two scores.

With less than six minutes to go, Sanchez found tight end, Dustin Keller, however, to cap off a 14-play, 92-yard drive and cut the deficit to one in what was really beginning to look like last week’s game in Seattle in its late stages.

With a chance to run the clock out with just over five minutes remaining, Brady threw two incomplete passes. Just one run call and an offensive pass interference penalty on Brandon Lloyd gave the ball back to the Jets with four and a half minutes left – plenty of time even for Sanchez.

On the first play, Keller was wide open. On the second play, Joe McKnight ran for 13 yards. Then on 3rd & 5, the Patriots got a little lucky as another WIDE OPEN receiver – this time Stephen Hill - dropped an easy catch and Folk was asked to kick a field goal. It was good and the game stood tied at 23, but the Hill drop left Brady with 2:06 and three timeouts.

It seemed  all right until McCourty fumbled the kickoff and the Jets had the ball in the red zone with just over two minutes to go. The Patriots return man fumbled the ball before even being brought to the ground and it was recovered by Lex Hilliard. The goat had gone from Hill to McCourty in a matter of minutes.

After two runs, Sanchez tried to pass for it on 3rd down, but was sacked by Dont’a Hightower, which set up a longer field goal try. Folk made the 43-yarder regardless and the Jets had a three-point lead with 1:37 left. Folk was 4-4 on the day and has now made 12 straight kicks in his first four-field goal game since 2010.

Brady being Brady, and as calm as ever, marched the team down the field with a couple of passes to Gronkowski and a couple to Danny Woodhead. Like Week 2, Stephen Gostkowski had a chance to kick a field goal as time expired. This time he made it to send the game to overtime tied at 26. It was the first regular season overtime game for the Patriots since Oct. 17, 2010 in a win against Baltimore.

New England won the toss and elected to receive, knowing a touchdown would end it.

Brady again drove the Pats down the field to the Jets’ 30 before coming up empty on 3rd & 6 to begin overtime . Gostkowski hit another field goal and New England went up 29-26. Welker, Woodhead and Deion Branch were all big on the drive and the Patriots were aided by a 3rd down pass interference penalty called on Kyle Wilson

Branch was big on the drive as he was on the field for most it as well as the final drive of regulation. Even though he only caught one ball, it was for nine yards and a first down. His veteran poise alone was useful during the pressure-filled drive.

I remember the good ol’ days when a made field goal in overtime would have been the end of the game.

Now Sanchez would have his turn, however. A holding call on Dennard on 3rd & 4 gave the Jets a fresh set of downs.

But, that would be their last set. Facing a 2nd & long, Sanchez dropped back. Jermaine Cunningham brought pressure up the middle and contained Sanchez while Rob Ninkovich hit him and forced the fumble. A huge play by two guys who just do what they’re asked. Sanchez finished the game 28-41 for 328 yards with a touchdown and a pick.

It was the trifecta for Ninkovich with the sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery. The fourth element to the “quad-fecta” was the most important though – the win.

After review, the call was confirmed and the Pats escaped 29-26 in OT to reclaim first place in the East at 4-3. This was Ryan’s first overtime loss as Jets head coach. He had been 3-0 during free football.

It certainly wasn’t pretty all the way through, but a win’s a win. The Patriots improved to 6-0 when wearing their throwback uniforms at home and have won 15 of the last 19 against the rival Jets. New England also improved to 24-3 all-time when leading the Jets by six or more points at halftime and now has a two-game edge in the all-time series at 54-52-1.

The three-point loss and the fact that the game even went to overtime could have been a result of the two free points New England got when Sanchez kicked the ball out of the endzone. He might want that play back this morning.

With just six receptions on Sunday, Welker failed to get to double digits for what would have been the third straight week. Six catches is his lowest total since he had five in Week 2. He finished with six catches for 66 yards.

Shane Vereen finished with 49 yards rushing – his career high. Stevan Ridley had 65 on the ground and this was the fourth time this year that the Patriots rushed for more than 100 yards as a team and are 4-0 when it’s happened.

Even though they passed the ball more than they ran it (42-31), they found a way to win, which hand’t always been the case in the first six weeks of the year.

Surprisingly, McCourty wasn’t yanked from the kick return role after the costly fumble.

Dan Connolly left the game with an illness in the first. Logan Mankins, Patrick Chung and Brandon Bolden did not dress for the Pats. Hightower was back on the field after missing the previous two games with a hamstring injury. Jerod Mayo injured his shoulder in the 2nd quarter, but returned to open the third. Dowling and Trevor Scott both left the game with injuries as well.

The makeshift offensive line was without Mankins and lost Connolly during the game. The three lesser-known linemen between the tackles – Nick McDonald, Ryan Wendell and Donald Thomas – did a pretty good job on the day, especially protecting the quarterback. Brady was sacked just once and with all that time he finished 26-42 for 259 yards and two touchdowns.

And finally, I’m sure everyone’s dying to know. Tebow finished the day with four carries for 12 yards and no, none of them came as a running back.

The Patriots head to London next week to take on the 3-4 Rams at Wembley Stadium while he Jets fell to 3-4 and will host the Dolphins next week.

 

Follow me on Twitter @RealAndyLarmand.

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