Before their Week 8 bye, with Tom Brady eviscerating defenses, the Patriots looked primed to steamroll their way through the AFC and into the Super Bowl. November pumped the brakes on any early coronation.
The AFC East leaders had to spend every ounce of available energy Sunday to rally past the Jets for a 22–17 win, capping a month that also saw them lose (at home) to Seattle and grind out an aesthetically unappealing victory in San Francisco.
As long as players can suffer injuries in the NFL, every team is vulnerable, to some degree. The Patriots are no different. Their offense is worse when Rob Gronkowski is not on the field. And they’re not exactly a runaway locomotive when Tom Brady is hurting, as he was against New York.
New England has built a dynasty because it finds a way to win slugfests like Sunday’s by any means necessary. (The outcome also helped illustrate why the Jets have been gasping for air for some time now.) With Gronkowski absent, Martellus Bennett also banged up and Jets lineman Leonard Williams disrupting most plays in his path late in the game, Brady turned to Malcolm Mitchell. The rookie receiver had just scored his first career TD last week against the 49ers; he tacked on two more Sunday, including the game-winner with 1:56 left.
Brady needs no excess adulation at this point of his career. The expectation is that he will get the job done, regardless of the circumstances. So he did Sunday, while hobbling all afternoon.
Until push came to shove in the fourth quarter, after the Jets had grabbed a 17–12 lead, the Patriots’ passing attack mostly was relegated to what you might call a Gabbertesque approach: short passes with little threat of stretching the field deep. The two downfield throws Brady did try in the early stages Sunday went Gronkowski’s way, before the talented tight end exited with a back injury. Both fell incomplete.
Even with a handful of substantial pickups on the game-deciding drive, Brady still finished with just 9.5 yards per completion and 5.7 yards per attempt, both well below his career averages (11.8 and 7.5, respectively). More often than not, when Brady looks long, he’s eyeing Gronkowski. When Gronk isn’t available and Brady can’t get much juice on his throws ... well, Sunday’s game plan happens.
There was little indication out of the notoriously secretive Patriots as to the nature or severity of the knee injury that caused Brady to miss multiple practices this week—per The Boston Herald, it’s the first time he’s missed two or more practices since the 2010 season—so there were doubts about whether he’d be able to go Sunday.
Had the Patriots lost and seen their division lead dwindle to one game, there may have been questions about whether or not Brady should have been out there in the first place. Not that anyone will soon forget, but New England does have at its disposal a now-slightly experienced backup in Jimmy Garoppolo.
But you don’t tell Brady to sit if he says (with confirmation from the doctors) he can go.
That said, the Patriots’ goals for the final five weeks of the regular season are a) lock up the AFC East, b) secure a first-round bye in the playoffs and c) get Brady and Gronkowski as close to 100% as is possible at this time of the year. The final challenge is the most important when it comes to their Super Bowl hopes, and it also might be the toughest to accomplish.
Gronkowski playing at all Sunday was a testament to his physical toughness. A mere two weeks ago, he suffered a punctured lung on an Earl Thomas hit, and early reports indicated he would sit out Week 12. He suited up anyway, only to leave with a back injury.
Brady certainly gutted it out, too, when he could have taken his fifth Sunday off of the season—although it would have been his first due to injury. Who knows how this game would have played out if he had.
The Patriots will take the win, especially since that result seemed to be slipping from their grasp in the second half. However, if they plan to be the dominant force they were earlier in the season down the stretch, they need Brady and Gronkowski back at their best.