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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Patriots Almost Suffer Another Crushing Loss, Recover To Beat Jets 29-26 In Overtime

The Patriots have pretty much left me speechless with their inability when it comes to closing out games this season. Today they were up 23-13 heading into the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium against the Jets who came in with statistically the third worst offense in the NFL.

Wouldn't you know it, New England (4-3, 2-1 home) nearly blew it as New York (3-4, 1-2 away) rallied for 13 straight points. Thankfully for once, the Pats were able to drive for the tying score and then won it with another field goal in overtime as their 29-26 win put them in sole possession of first place in the AFC (L)East. Buffalo lost earlier today and Miami had a bye week.

I suppose there are two ways to look at this win if you are a Patriots fan. 1) If they struggled so much against a team as bumbling as the Jets, what will happen when they play a legitimate playoff contender? 2) The AFC is awful and other than Houston (who got blown out last week at home by the Packers), who else is there to fear? Don't get me wrong, I don't know if I've ever felt less satisfied after a victory but bigger picture, I hope that maybe this game will serve as some sort of rallying point for a team that was going nowhere fast.

Perhaps most disheartening for New England was that they made Mark Sanchez (28 of 41, 328 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) look like a quality NFL quarterback. Of course, the clinching play was a strip-sack of Sanchez and recovery by Rob Ninkovich (6 tackles, 4 solo, 1.5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits). Nobody better illustrates the up and down nature of this team like Devin McCourty (5 solo tackles): the much maligned cornerback/safety had a 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He also coughed up the ball on a kickoff late in the fourth quarter that led to New York's go-ahead field goal.

Tom Brady (26 of 42, 259 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) wasn't at his best but he was able to lead New England to the tying field goal-a 43-yard kick by Stephen Gostkowski-as regulation expired. Likewise, after the Patriots received the kickoff to begin overtime, he led them down the field for what turned out to be the game-winner: a 48-yard kick by the suddenly clutch Gostkowski.

Both quarterbacks spread it around to eight receivers. Jeremy Kerley set a career-high with seven catches for 120 yards while Dustin Keller added seven catches for 93 yards. Rob Gronkowski (6 catches, 78 yards) had one of his best games of the season with two touchdowns while the Jets neutralized Wes Welker (6 catches, 66 yards) and Aaron Hernandez (5 catches, 54 yards). Brandon Lloyd's first dose of the Patriots-Jets rivalry was not a memorable one as he had one catch for six yards. I shudder to think what he would do if Darrelle Revis had played.

New England's rushing attack didn't seem to miss Brandon Bolden that much as Stevan Ridley (65 yards), Shane Vereen (49 yards) and Danny Woodhead (17) combined for 131 rushing yards in the win. After blowing up against the Colts last weekend, Shonn Greene (54 yards rushing, TD) was back to his usual level.

New York scored a touchdown on its opening drive, a sign of things to come in this nail-biter. Greene ran it in from a yard out. McCourty's kick return to paydirt answered that and Gronk's first TD put New England up 14-7 after the first quarter. It was a diving grab from 17 yards out, proof of why Brady needs to target Gronkowski more in the red zone than he has so far this season.

In the most Jets play of all-time, Sanchez fumbled a handoff to Greene when they were backed up near their own end zone. Rather than have Vince Wilfork (7 tackles, 5 solo) or another Patriot recover it, Sanchez kicked it out of the back of the end zone for a safety. It was New England's first two-pointer since Week 1 in 2006 (miss you Ty Warren).

Nick Folk showed that he has a bigger leg than we knew by drilling a 54-yard field goal with two seconds left in the first half. New York only trailed 16-10 at halftime in one of the strangest halves of football in recent memory.

New England got a red zone stop so the Jets had to settle for a 21-yard goal from Folk to cut it to 16-13 early third quarter. Gronkowski's 2-yard touchdown catch put the Patriots up 10 (23-13) and I think naively that's when we thought they would pull away.

In basically a four-minute span late in the fourth quarter, Keller caught a 7-yard touchdown (Sanchez's best throw of the day) then Folk hit identical 43-yard field goals. I had little faith that Gostkowski would make not one vital kick but two. I'm happy to say he proved many people wrong and maybe that will get him over that mental hurdle.

The Patriots linebacker crew of Jerod Mayo (11 tackles, 10 solo), Brandon Spikes (10 tackles, 7 solo) and Dont'a Hightower (7 solo tackles, sack) all had big games. Kyle Arrington added seven solo tackles and rookie Alfonzo Dennard recorded the first interception of his NFL career.

Next Sunday, the Patriots play the Rams (3-4) in London (1:00 p.m., CBS) at Wembley Stadium. I won't get into how the NFL should just give up on trying to market the league in the UK and simply hope that the Patriots don't keep getting sent there. St. Louis lost 30-20 to Green Bay today at home, their second loss in a row. They present a somewhat similar challenge that the Seahawks did. They have a very solid defense and their offense remains a question mark led by inconsistent quarterback Sam Bradford. After losing to Seattle and Arizona, New England can ill-afford another loss to an NFC West squad they should beat.

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