FOXBORO, Mass. — An 84-yard punt-return touchdown by rookie Marcus Jones with five seconds remaining lifted the New England Patriots to a dramatic 10-3 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
The win — New England’s third in a row — had potentially massive implications in the AFC East playoff race. The Patriots now sit at 6-4 on the season, allowing them to leapfrog the 6-4 Jets in the divisional standings. They sit just one game back of the 7-3 Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills with eight weeks remaining.
1. Defense does its job
Zach Wilson did not repeat his three-interception disaster from these teams’ first meeting. And that’s just about the only thing that went right for the Jets’ offense in this one.
The Patriots erased New York’s ground game, holding running backs Michael Carter, James Robinson and Ty Johnson to a combined 33 yards on 19 carries. They sacked Wilson four times — including two by Matthew Judon, upping his NFL-leading season total to 13 1/2 — and pressured him throughout. Deatrich Wise and Ja’Whaun Bentley were especially disruptive as New England’s front seven overwhelmed the Jets’ offensive line. Wilson finished 9-for-22 for 77 yards and was lucky to avoid an interception when a poorly thrown pass bounced off safety Devin McCourty’s chest.
The Jets opened the second half with five consecutive three-and-outs. They gained just six first downs in the entire game, with two of those coming late in the fourth quarter. It was a thoroughly dominant performance by a Patriots defense that looks like one of the NFL’s best.
2. O-line woes continue
David Andrews’ return from a concussion was supposed to bring a measure of stability back to the Patriots’ offensive line. But tumultuous times continued for that struggling unit.
The first eyebrow-raising moment came before kickoff, when it was revealed that Trent Brown would be removed from the starting lineup. Brown had played every offensive snap through the first nine games, but the Patriots opted to move Isaiah Wynn to left tackle — Brown’s usual spot — and play Yodny Cajuste at right tackle. It was unclear whether Brown’s demotion was strategic or due to an injury or illness, but he was not listed on New England’s injury report entering the game.
Injuries then prompted additional in-game changes. First, Andrews suffered what appeared to be a serious thigh injury and had to be helped to the locker room. Then, Wynn went down with a foot injury. Both were ruled out at halftime.
Brown replaced Wynn at left tackle but did not look like himself. Typically immovable at 6-foot-8, 370 pounds, he was overpowered on a pair of Jets sacks. James Ferentz, Andrews’ understudy, also allowed a sack and was flagged for holding. Ditto for Cajuste. Those blocking miscues proved costly, hamstringing an otherwise respectable performance by Mac Jones and the Patriots’ offense.
Jones went 23-for-27 for 246 yards with no turnovers in one of his most efficient performances of the season. Damien Harris had his best game in weeks, rushing eight times for 65 yards and adding 28 yards on two receptions. Rhamondre Stevenson was bottled up as a rusher (15 carries, 26) but caught all six of his targets for a team-high 56 yards. The Patriots used Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith in creative ways — including aligning both in the backfield as part of a “full house” three-back formation — and got big plays out of both tight ends.
The Patriots reached Jets territory on five of their drives and got within 10 yards of midfield on two more. They outgained New York 297-103. But they could not overcome their persistent problems up front. And the quick turnaround before their Thanksgiving night road game in Minnesota could make it difficult for Andrews or Wynn to return in time.
New England’s offense has scored just three touchdowns over its last three games. The Patriots managed to win all three, but that formula will not be sustainable as the schedule intensifies in the coming weeks.
3. Missed opportunities
The wind that whipped through Gillette Stadium on Sunday clearly had an impact on New England’s kicking game. Nick Folk, typically borderline automatic inside 50 yards, missed from 44 and 43 yards into the open north end, with the former clanging off the crossbar.
Those are field goals Folk should be expected to make, but he wasn’t helped by his offense in either scenario. His first miss came after a hold by Cajuste and a sack allowed by Brown pushed the Patriots’ from the Jets’ 7-yard line back to the 26. The second followed another sack against Brown and a Ferentz hold.
Folk’s make also came after a conservative decision by head coach Bill Belichick, who opted to send the field-goal unit out on fourth-and-1 from the Jets’ 6. ESPN’s analytics model viewed that as a mistake.
Matt Patricia’s play-calling also deserves to be scrutinized. There were a few puzzling play calls in key spots, like a shotgun stretch run to Stevenson on fourth-and-1 and an odd second-down QB sneak by Jones.
4. New punter delivers
The newest member of the Patriots 53-man roster was their unsung hero in his New England debut. Michael Palardy, promoted from the practice squad after Jake Bailey’s move to injured reserve, averaged 45.3 yards on his seven punts, including one that was downed at the Jets’ 5-yard line and another from near his own goal line that gave the Patriots some much-needed breathing room in the final minute of the first half. Both of those were into the wind.
As for Marcus Jones, he briefly left the game with an ankle injury before returning to provide the game-winning touchdown. It was the first touchdown of his young NFL career. The third-round draft pick scored an NCAA-record-tying nine times on punt and kick returns in college and already has emerged as one of the NFL’s most explosive returners.