FOXBORO -- Brandon LaFell walked to the Patriots sideline and looked to the heavens. He had just dropped his sixth Tom Brady pass of the afternoon in a game against the division rival Jets, and he couldn't figure out why.
It was not the way he had envisioned his return to game action after missing the first five games of the year on the physically unable to perform list.
"If I had to give myself a grade, it'd be an 'F,' " LaFell said after the Patriots beat the Jets, 30-23. "I let the ball get out of my hands too many times. Tom threw some good balls. I should've caught them. Overall, we got the win. I just gotta get back into it. We got a short week, dust the cobwebs off, and come back out here and play a better game."
LaFell dealt with a foot injury all offseason, forcing him to miss Patriots practices in the spring and all throughout training camp. Though he had just three practices under his belt going into the Jets game -- all this week -- he played a relatively large role in New England's spread-it-out game plan against the blitz-happy Jets.
He received eight targets, but caught only two for 25 yards.
"First game, last game, it doesn't matter," LaFell said. "I expect more from myself. And my teammates expect more from me. I'm just really down on myself right now, but I'm happy for the other guys around me. They got their level of play up and held on for us and made plays for us when we needed them."
At times it looked as though LaFell was still getting accustomed to his timing with Brady. At others, it simply looked like rust that led to his drops. LaFell made no excuses to reporters after the game, and he said that he received a great deal of encouragement on the sidelines.
"After the first one . . . kind of got down on myself," he said. "Tom kept telling me he was going to come back to me. Coaches kept telling me, 'Just keep making plays.' I just wasn't making them."
LaFell has seen very little in the way of contact this season, but he said that after taking one hit, that part of the game became second nature.
"I think it happened quick," he said. "After I got hit, I was good. I was good. I was into the game. I just didn't play like I was good."
LaFell was not the only one who let a pass get through his hands for the Patriots. Julian Edelman dropped what appeared to be a surefire touchdown deep in Jets territory when he beat Darrelle Revis off of the line of scrimmage in the third quarter. Brady hit Edelman in stride, but the pass deflected off of his hands and hit the turf.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski also had a long potential completion glance off of his hands as he streaked down the sideline behind the Jets defense.
"I don't think any of us really felt great about the way we performed today," coach Bill Belichick said when asked about the team's drops. "We can all do a better job so I'm sure that everybody feels that way. I do, and I'm sure everybody else does. We just left too many plays on the field too often."
But, as Belichick noted, in the end the Patriots were able to make enough plays to win and hold on to first place in the AFC East. Danny Amendola's touchdown reception in the fourth quarter to give the Patriots a 23-20 lead was particularly important, and LaFell knew it.
As LaFell packed up his things to leave the Patriots locker room, he got Amendola's attention to thank him for helping to make the sting of his tough return a little lighter.
"DA," LaFell said. "Appreciate you."