EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The turning point in Sunday’s game wasn’t the Jets much-discussed overturned touchdown in the fourth quarter.
It came just before and right after the half when Malcolm Butler picked off Josh McCown with 40 seconds left, Tom Brady hit Brandin Cooks with a 42-yard cloudscraper and the Patriots punched it in then tacked on another touchdown after the break. A 14-7 deficit threatening to balloon had flipped to a 21-14 lead.
Asked about that in his postgame press conference, Bill Belichick offered an answer that serves as a microcosm for the Patriots through their first six games.
“We didn’t really handle the end of the half the way we wanted to handle it,” he said. “We got down there with a minute-and-a-half and then threw three incomplete passes and missed a field goal. We were fortunate to get the ball back and able to capitalize on that opportunity. Cooks made a great catch for us down the field. It turned out alright, we scored before the half, but that’s not really the way we were trying to handle the whole situation.”
“All’s well that ends well” isn’t really what the Patriots 16-season run of success has been about, and that’s why this win – like most of the rest – comes with caveats and yeah buts.
“I wish we would have done better but we won so … there is probably a lot to learn from it,” said Brady. “I wish we could have played a little bit better offensively.
“We just didn’t execute as well as we needed to,” he added. “I think that’s probably the big thing. Just execution. We’ll keep at it. It’s only the sixth game of the year so there’s still a lot to figure out and we’ll just keep going out to practice and try to do better.”
The palate-cleansing 10-day layoff after a scrappy, short-week win on the road over Tampa was spoiled early on Sunday. The Jets converted five of their first six third downs on an 88-yard drive then went ahead 14-0 after the Patriots fumbled on their second drive.
After that, the defense settled in for a stretch as the offense slowly got its footing and erased the deficit. There were positives in the mix. Brady was much more well-protected than he’s been (no sacks, four quarterback hits) and the running game was as effective as it’s been all year. But the little inefficiencies for a team that’s long been so efficient nagged like a pebble in the shoe.
“There’s a handful of us that aren’t playing up to our potential and I think it stings,” said left tackle Nate Solder. “People say ‘great job’ but you know how much better it could be. That’s how I feel and I think some other guys feel the same way. It takes a lot to win so I understand that we have to enjoy that but you also take it hard when you’re not playing the way you think you can play. I appreciate every player and every second we’re playing and every ounce of effort and I want to play better. Both can be true.”
The Patriots are like a scratch golfer putting up a 78. Good for you. Good for me. He ain’t gonna like it though.
Surveying the NFL landscape, the Patriots are pretty much like the rest of the NFL’s presumed upper-crust. The Falcons blew a 17-point lead and lost to the Dolphins on Sunday. The Chiefs lost at home to the Steelers who were presumed dead last week. The Raiders lost to the Chargers. We could go on with the litany of examples of other teams trying to find their footing. The difference here is that the expectation wasn’t that the Patriots were in the bucket with the “other teams.” The expectation was that they were far and away the class of the NFL.
We were disabused of that notion weeks ago, but even so, the improvement is glacially slow in coming. Josh McCown dropped 354 yards on them on Sunday and the Jets went 9 for 17 on third down.
Brady’s agitation with the inefficiency – and he wasn’t flawless on Sunday by a far sight – is part of the process as well. Whether it was his cup-throwing rage in 2010 when the Patriots were playing at Pittsburgh or his screaming at the moon in 2013 in the rain during a Week 2 game against the Jets, eventually he’s going to go to the whip as a leader.
“I’m always a little edgy out there for one reason or another,” he explained when asked why he was running hot. “It’s just an emotional game. I don’t know what it was today, I think it was just frustration from the way things were going and our execution. It just blows up a little bit.”
I asked Dont'a Hightower how important it is for the leaders on the team to make sure there’s a refusal to settle for “good enough.”
“We have the right guys saying it and guys are buying in, but we need to keep harping on it,” he said. “We know what we need to do we just haven’t gone out and done it for a full 60 minutes.”
I asked him if that performance is coming.
“I hope so,” he replied.