There were a lot of ways that the Sunday night game between the Patriots and the Jets could have played out. I imagined many scenarios resulting in both wins and losses for New England; but last night's result was not one of them.
I stated in my game preview that whether the Patriots won or lost this game, for many reasons it seemed a little bit irrelevant. A win would only seem meaningful if the Patriot's defense really turned things around and played spectacularly, guided by improved defensive coaching.
And that's exactly what happened. The Patriots took advantage of their national audience and proved that they are not even close to done with this season. They clearly have plans for the postseason. Armed with the statistically worst defense in the league, and playing an unprecedented ten undrafted free agents across the course of the game, the Patriots went on the road and handily beat their divisional rival New York Jets.
So how did they do it, and what did we learn about the New England Patriots as a team and how were they able to rise so convincingly from the hole they started to dig themselves into?
1. Bill Belichick coached to the strengths of his team, rather than the strength of his game plan.
Rather than play it safe at the line of scrimmage against a fairly strong and improved running game, Belichick consistently rushed the passer with blitz schemes and finally gave up trying to force his incapable secondary to play nickel ad dime packages against much more talented receivers.
This took the pressure off of the secondary, which was further diminished in depth by the absence of Pat Chung and an injury during the game to James Ihedigbo. Even starting undrafted free agents like Ross Ventrone and Philip Adams, the Patriot defense looked capable and unafraid, and part of that was due to Belichick's trust in them as a unit. Allowing his defensive line and linebackers to roam free more than usual worked to their advantage against the Jets. Injuries may have forced his hand a little, but it definitely looked like a recipe for success.
Over the past few years, the Patriots pass rush has been essentially been nonexistent, putting the burden of stopping the passing game on the secondary. But with the secondary so weakened and with a limited linebacking core, Andre Carter has stepped up as a legitimate threat alongside Vince Wilfork on the defensive line. He has played well all year, but last night was his coming out party as he moved into the top five in the league in sacks on the season.
3. Brady was 2 parts lucky and 8 parts clutch/elite quarterback, and that combination will beat any defense in the league; especially with his receivers.
Beside a few passes that probably should have been intercepted, Tom Brady played at the level of efficiency that NFL fans are used to seeing from the three-time Super Bowl Champion. Brady broke records for career 300 yard passing games, and joining Belichick to surpass Don Shula and Dan Marino as the coach/QB duo with the most wins together.
Brady's 26/39 for 329 yards and three touchdowns was the type for performance that we have come to expect from him. Rob Gronkowski proved once again why he is one of the best tight ends in the league, connecting with Brady for 118 yards and two touchdowns to bring his season total to eight. Chad Ochocinco even got involved in the offense this week, making two major catches for 65 yards. It wasn't exactly brilliant, but if Ocho can even just do that every week, the Pats' offense just got even more threatening.
4. The Patriots made a mediocre quarterback playing badly pay for his mistakes, and they should be able to do that through the rest of the regular season.
The Patriots have the easiest remaining schedule through the rest of 2011, playing just one team with a winning record at this point in their season finale against the fast-unaveling Buffalo Bills. Quarterbacks that the Patriots defense will be taking on: Matt Cassel, Michael Vick, Curtis Painter, Rex Grossman and/or John Beck, Tim Tebow, Matt Moore and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
If the Patriots defense was asked to hand pick eight quarterbacks that they think they could take advantage of, I'm fairly sure the list would look almost identical to this one. They have a huge chance here to put the AFC East Division title in their pocket. All they have to do now is stop guys like Painter and Tebow. It couldn't be any easier for them.
5. They followed NFL Football 101: Maximize your advantages and minimize your weaknesses.
The simple fact of the matter is that all of the teams in the AFC East, even the Pittsburgh Steelers, have major flaws in their system; whether it is coaching, personnel, injuries, talent or game management. One week ago the Ravens looked to be creeping up to the top of the ranks in the NFL's elite.
This week, after an unforgiveable loss to the Seattle Seahawks and another disconcerting performance from Joe Flacco, they once again look very beatable. The Jets have again been exposed by the Patriots, and the Bills were dominated by the Dallas Cowboys. The Bengals gave the Steelers a run for their money on Sunday afternoon. Perhaps only the Houston Texans look like they might be having a season of destiny in the AFC; but even then, we've seen this type of thing from them before.
Because of the state of the conference, the Patriots have an advantage purely because of their few elite players and the positions they play. Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Andre Carter and Bill Belichick are all among the best right now at what they do in this league. Even Kyle Arrington and his five interceptions are at the top of the NFL. Any time you have big play makers who have proven they can play in big situations; your team has a chance.
The question still remains whether the Patriots can do it in the playoffs like they used to. But after last night, it looks like it would take major collapse for the New England Patriots not to at least get there.