There wasn’t much of a difference.
All that separated the 11-3 New England Patriots from the 3-11 New York Jets was one point. And on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, that was what it took for the Patriots to secure a first-round bye despite a thinned active roster and a stagnant first-half performance on both sides of the ball.
“Another tough game down here,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his press conference. “It was good to win. I felt like our team needed to make a lot of plays in the fourth quarter to win, and they did.”
But New England’s 17-16 win almost never was.
1. New England Assembles with Three Defensive Tackles: Three Patriots defensive tackles got the start against the Jets’ run game that tallied 43 carries for 218 yards in the Oct. 16 meeting. Sealver Siliga was on short-term injured reserve and Alan Branch was a free agent back then, but on Sunday, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Siliga and the 6-foot-6, 335 pound Branch joined the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Vince Wilfork up front in 3-4 sets. New England’s defense proceeded to let up 59 first-half rushing yards and 116 on 32 attempts in all, as Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson looked for room from the inside out. The two rushers found room, but only five first downs were netted in the process. The Patriots allowed 13 on the ground the last time the two teams faced.
2. Jets Pick Passing Battle: New England aligned the 6-foot-4 Brandon Browner on the right receiver and with former Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis on the left for much of the contest. And with Kyle Arrington out with a hamstring injury, that sent second-year Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan in to cover Jeremy Kerley in the slot. That was a matchup Smith looked to over split end Eric Decker or flanker Percy Harvin, connecting with Kerley for two passes and 29 yards in Ryan’s jurisdiction during the first half. Safety Patrick Chung was responsible for another 25 of Kerley’s receiving yards thereafter.
3. Cumberland Lands in End Zone: Jets tight end Jeff Cumberland caught his first touchdown pass of the season on a Thursday night in October against Chung. And this Sunday in December, the Illinois product caught his second. Chung pursued play action down in the red zone, all while Cumberland caught a pass overhead behind him. 2013 third-rounder Duron Harmon swapped in for Chung on Cumberland in the fourth quarter.
4. New York Overwhelms New England’s Six-Man Line: Marcus Cannon was in to handle snaps as the sixth offensive lineman early, while starting left tackle Nate Solder kicked over as the eligible tight end. But the efforts of New England’s pass protection ultimately conceded three sacks in the first quarter of play, then a fourth in the second quarter to match the quarterback’s season-high. The Jets would not get to Brady for another, though. Left guard Josh Kline, who got his third career start and first since Week 7 against the Jets, was taken out as the second half opened up. Fellow starter Ryan Wendell took his place in replacement of the injured Dan Connolly, and tackle-eligible rookie Cameron Fleming took over at right guard. The Jets made the most of the influx with overload and delayed blitzes, but soon the Patriots would make a pact. The second-half adjustments settled the game down for Brady and the offense.
5. Receiver Reset for Patriots: With a concussion and a thigh injury keeping him home in Foxborough, the absence of Julian Edelman against the Jets called upon Danny Amendola and Brian Tyms to fill out New England’s thinned three-man wide receiver group. Amendola got the start across from Brandon LaFell in East Rutherford, and after heading into Week 16 with 15 receptions for 113 yards and a touchdown on the season, the slot target provided a boost on punt returns and with a season-high eight catches for 63 yards. The overall impact of the passing game was not realized in the first half, as the team produced 52 total yards and tight end Rob Gronkowski’s 54th NFL touchdown. But that slowly changed in the second half. A rhythm was found.
6. Undermanned Patriots Backfield Barrels Back: The 6-foot, 250-pound LeGarrette Blount did not make the trip due to a shoulder injury, marking his first scratch since returning to the Patriots earlier this season. And for the 13th time this season, fourth-round pick James White was also scratched 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday. Those factors sent New England in with only Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden at halfback. Gray got the start and left the game for a short stint due to an ankle injury, leaving Bolden as the power back while Vereen worked “12” personnel as a receiving option. But no options looked like good ones in the first half. The Patriots had rushed the ball six times for nine yards by intermission – with two coming via Brady – as the Jets took the ground attack out of the equation until the second half. It was then that Vereen got his first five carries and gained 33 yards on one drive. And it was then that Gray lowered his shoulder across the plane for a touchdown and New England’s first lead, 17-13. Then, with under two minutes remaining, it was Bolden’s turn to lower his shoulder for a first down to preserve New England’s 17-16 lead. The Patriots finished with 85 rushing yards along with it.
7. Patriots Salvage Game with Pass Rush: Smith and the Jets found their comfort zone versus New England’s pass rush in the early go of it, as New York’s offensive tackles managed to hold edge-rushers Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and the Patriots’ defense to zero sacks in the first half. The use of outside linebacker Akeem Ayers and extra rushers was minimized in an effort to occupy inside rush lanes and “mush rush” for much of Week 16. Only in the third quarter, the trend changed and the Patriots were able to hit home. Jones got to his destination and Smith sailed and interception to linebacker Jamie Collins would intercept. The pressure and turnover resulted in a touchdown eight plays later. And thenceforth, Jones and Siliga got to the QB, as did linebacker Dont’a Hightower just one drive later.
Their late push kept Jets rookie cornerback Marcus Williams’ interception from being the difference.