Insert your favorite sports cliche here. Somehow it applies.
The New England Patriots went into Sunday’s tilt with their division rival New York Jets hoping to redeem themselves after a one point loss to the Seattle Seahawks last weekend. It wasn’t exactly a stellar performance they delivered, but it was (just) good enough to get the W. The Pats sent the Jets back to the Big Apple sub-.500 with a 29-26 overtime win.
How the Patriots came to be midway through an extra frame before finally emerging victorious is a long, absurd tale, which starts and ends with the fact that the 2012 Pats really do an exemplary job of shooting themselves in the foot. Rocking their red throwback uniforms, the home team was up 23-13 at the end of the third, with a dominating performance by the run defense taking center stage. The secondary, though, was still stunningly ineffectual. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard got his first career start at cornerback across from Kyle Arrington, while incumbent Devin McCourty moved over to safety in lieu of the injured Patrick Chung. Ras-I Dowling saw playing time at corner, but used it mostly to rack up illegal contact and holding penalties, which were huge turning points for the Jets getting back in the game. Overall, that unit gave up several 20+ yard plays and their difficulties carried over into the second half. They weren’t helped much by the complete lack of pass rush generated by the front seven (can someone talk to Bill Belichick about his aversion to blitzing the Jets?) but just as they have all season, the secondary is just not good enough.
But the real story was the offense – or lack there of. It’s natural for any explosive offense to have an off game, and Tom Brady and company were downright awful for long stretches of the game, gaining only about half the number of yards against the Jets than they have averaged this season. That disparity could be chalked up to the familiarity the Jets have with the Pats system, but it’s more likely yet another indication of how lost this offense really is. They have no sense of identity, it seems, nothing to fall back on when the going gets tough. Brady spends a lot of time trying to force the ball down field for big gains while in the past this squad’s bread and butter was short and intermediate routes that moved the chains. They still try to do that sometimes too, but it doesn’t feel natural anymore. Perhaps a big-play mindset it what offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ is trying to instil in his player’s, and that’s admirable, but it’s not really working.
When the Patriots are at their best, they are sticking to what they do best. For the past four years, their offense has been a top-tier unit because they could do what few others could – successfully run the no huddle, beat just about anyone in the slot and unleash their tight end sets in the most unexpected ways. Simple. Clean. Effective. That was their identity. Now it feels like they’re trying everything on for size, just to see what sticks. And that’s all well and good, but the deeper the Pats get into this season, the more choosing a course to follow is going to matter.
Other game notes:
Devin McCourty was both hero and villain, running a kick back 104 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and then fumbling the ball on a late fourth quarter run back that nearly cost the team their victory. Kudos to Belichick for putting him back in as a returner. Good for his confidence.
Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham combining to sack Mark Sanchez and force the fumble that gave the Patriots the win was an excellent reminder of what makes this defense run, regardless of how much flack they take. It’s guys like Ninkovich, who works their butts off on every play, know their assignments and come up big when it matters. They aren’t flashy, they aren’t dominating; they’re just a good ‘ole blue collar crew.
Stephen Gostowski’s two big kicks – of 43 and 48 yards, put him back in our good graces following his epic failure in Arizona. Welcome back, Steve-O.
The Patriots now prepare to make moves across the pond. They’ll saddle up for London, England later this week to play the St. Louis Rams at Wembley next Sunday.