In another down-to-the-wire affair, the Patriots survived a near collapse against the Jets to capture a 29-26 win in overtime and draw first blood in this classic AFC East rivalry.
After Sunday's 29-26 Patriots' win over the New York Jets, there is sure to be varying outlooks on New England's football team from fans all across the region. On one hand, they didn't execute down the stretch and nearly lost a game that they once had complete control of. On the other, a victory is a victory, especially against a divisional foe.
Here are the five most important things that we learned from Sunday's game.
Jets still without answers for Patriots' star tight ends
Over the offseason, the Jets chose to bring in two physical safeties with size in order to help solve a match-up problem that's plagued them since 2010: New England's dynamic tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Those safeties were former Miami Dolphin Yeremiah Bell and the hard-hitting Laron Landry. Unfortunately for Rex Ryan's squad, these acquisitions didn't pay immediate dividends for New York, as both Patriots' tight ends enjoyed successful afternoons in the passing game. Gronkowski caught six balls for a total of 78 yards and a pair of touchdowns while Hernandez turned five pass receptions into 54 yards of offense.
Stephen Gostkowski's renewed confidence
After missing a potential game-winning field goal back in week two against the Arizona Cardinals and following it up with a pair of misses the following week in Buffalo, Patriots' place kicker Stephen Gostkowski's confidence must not have been very high. When No. 3 came up to attempt a game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, Patriots' fans across New England held their collective breath. Fortunately, the former Memphis Tiger knocked it through the uprights from 43 yards out to tie the game at 26 and force overtime period. The New England kicker would knock another kick through the uprights in overtime, this time from 48 yards, that would eventually prove to be the game-winner. If Gostkowski can use Sunday's performance as a building block of confidence, the Patriots should be in good shape with the kicking game as we move forward this season.
Back to running back by committee?
With Brandon Bolden missing the first game of his young career due to an injury sustained early in last week's game against the Seattle Seahawks, the Patriots found themselves with three options in the running game. Featured back Stevan Ridley took the ball on 17 carries and picked up 65 yards on the ground. Undersized reserve Danny Woodhead was ineffective on his six attempts, gathering up just 17 yards. In the shocker of the evening, rarely-used back Shane Vereen carried the ball eight times for a solid total of 49 yards and a 6.1 yards-per-carry average. While Ridley was once thought of as the obvious number one option in the running game, his recent ball control issues have led to what looks to be a running back by committee system. The way I see it, the Patriots would be best to just ride the hot hand and stick with the player whose been playing the best on any given day. However, I remain confused as to why they often choose to run the ball with 5'8" Danny Woodhead in third or fourth and short situations as opposed to one of their larger, more physical backs.
Time to acknowledge the facts: Tom Brady isn't getting any better
For as sacrilegious as some folks around New England will believe this to be, the simple fact of the matter is that longtime Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady simply isn't the same player that he used to be. Of course, it'd be silly to expect any player to maintain such a high level of success for so many years, so this is no fault of number 12. Despite Brady being outplayed by Jets' quarterback Mark Sanchez to the tune of a 69-yard pass differential; I'm not simply looking at statistics in this evaluation. The missed targets, inability to take control of the offense and close out a game and the mental mistakes that we never used to see are what have made Tom Brady a much different player today than he was just five short years ago. He does deserve tons of credit for leading the drive at the conclusion of regulation that would set up Gostkowski's last-second game-tying field goal. However, he will need to be better in close-out situations if the Patriots are to do any sort of damage in the AFC this season.
Offense can't close, but defense finally makes a play
Tom Brady and the New England offense took over with 5:39 to go in the fourth and final quarter and a three-point lead in tow. A scoring drive here would have virtually ended New York's hopes at a comeback. Even just a few first downs would have put Mark Sanchez and co. in a tremendously difficult position as valuable time would have run off the clock. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It's virtually the same situation that the offense has been in at the end of each and every close game that the Patriots have been involved in over the past two seasons. Against the New York Giants in Superbowl 46, and the Arizona Cardinals (Week 2), Baltimore Ravens (Week 3), and Seattle Seahawks (Week 6) this year, the New England offense hasn't been able to come through in the clutch during a situation like this. Sunday's game against the Jets was no different. A Brandon Lloyd penalty and a pair of unsuccessful runs would end in a three-and-out, allowing the Jets more than enough time to move into kicker Nick Folk's field goal range. The offense's inability to close out games remains a real problem for the Patriots and will be their Achilles heel this season, unless a resolution is found, immediately.
For the first time in quite a while, the Patriots defense succeeded in a situation in which the result of the game was completely within their control. A stop would have won the game, while a Jets' touchdown would have lost it. New England needed a game-changer. And they got one, in the form of defensive end/linebacker hybrid Rob Ninkovich who came through with the strip-sack and fumble recovery to seal the Patriots' overtime victory. While one play certainly isn't enough to warrant the installation of any great amount of confidence in the New England defense, it is a good sign as the Patriots move forward into a tough portion of their schedule.