By Brians Garland
“We’re preparing for the Jets.” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick shot down questions from reporters following a New England loss to Tennessee, choosing to focus on their matchup with the New York Jets after their bye week.
The Patriots all but secured first place in the AFC East this year, and a victory over New York would bring them closer to officially clinching the division.
The sustained success of the Kansas City Chiefs (9-2) and resurgence of the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3-1), Los Angeles Chargers (8-3) Houston Texans (7-3) this season gives New England a thin margin of error for playoff seeding, so the Patriots need to capitalize against the abysmal AFC East opponents.
Rookie quarterback Sam Darnold sat out due to a foot injury, so longtime backup Josh McCown started in Darnold’s place for the New York Jets.
Tom Brady missed practice due to illness this week, but he recovered by Saturday. Tight end Rob Gronkowski made his return this week after sitting out the past three games, and he attracted plenty of attention from New York’s defense.
Rookie running back Sony Michel was healthy for this game and played most snaps as he did against Tennessee, but he was much more comfortable running the ball this week in New Jersey.
Michel briefly left the game after an excruciating hit appeared to twist his back in the third quarter, but he played the rest of the game. His status for next week is questionable, but his fourth quarter performance proves he is in playing shape despite the injury.
The Patriots and Jets traded punts before Josh McCown found receiver Jermaine Kearse for a 16-yard touchdown deep in New England territory to take an early 7-0 lead.
Two twenty-yard passes to Josh Gordon and Chris Hogan set the Patriots inside New York territory, with a 34-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski tying the game at 7-7.
The Patriots and Jets traded punts and then field goals again to cap the half at 10-10.
The first half was void of much excitement due to miscues on offense for the Patriots and missed tackles on defense.
The running game was much more effective this week against the 3-8 Jets with Sony Michel feeling better than last week, and improved play from the offensive line. Michel finished with 21 carries for 133 yards and a touchdown rushing, a standout game for the rookie.
“Prove you can run consistently” is the message Bill Belichick sent to Michel and the offense this week. They answered.
Receiver Julian Edelman left the game early against Tennessee but he looked himself against the Jets, as did Rob Gronkowski in the second half. He finished with 84 yards and a touchdown.
Gronkowski caught three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown, but his presence changed the game immediately, with the Jets rushing to help out and double-cover the tight end.
The Patriots pulled away in the second half with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Edelman to put the Patriots ahead 20-13. After the Patriots defense forced another punt, another five-minute offensive drive allowed the Patriots to put the game away, with Sony Michel rushing in for a one-yard score to go ahead 27-13.
The defense tightened up and forced three more punts and a turnover on downs to finish off the game, its best quarter all game because of consistent pass pressure and coverages that forced Josh McCown to go deep when it mattered. McCown was unable to answer, overshooting his receivers on deep passes.
The Patriots improved to the second seed in the AFC Playoffs with a win over the Jets and a Pittsburgh Steelers loss to the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon.
The last challenge of the regular season is ahead for the Patriots with a home game against the Minnesota Vikings and two road games in Miami and Pittsburgh over the next three weeks.
This final stretch can decide the Patriots’ playoff seeding, as all they need to take the first seed is another Kansas City loss before the end of the season, assuming the Patriots win out their five remaining games.
With Minnesota and Pittsburgh left on the schedule, it would be unwise for the Patriots to head into cruise control for the rest of the season.
The Vikings head into Gillette Stadium Sunday, December 2nd for a 4:25PM kickoff. Stay tuned.
Brian Garland is the Sports Editor for The Comment.