The New England Patriots have had the New York Jets' number in recent years, and now, the Pats have lapped the field in what used to be the Jets' specialty under Rex Ryan: winning ugly. New England beat the Jets for the fifth straight time, this time by a 13-10 score, and this was unquestionably the weirdest version of those victories. With every elite target he'd thrown to in previous years either injured, in different uniforms, in jail or retired, Tom Brady completed 19 of 39 passes for one touchdown and no picks. It was the first time since 2009 that he completed less than 50 percent of his passes in a game.
And as it turned out, the "no picks" stat was the most important of the night, because Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith threw three interceptions, all in the fourth quarter. As often as the Jets were in the mix to actually pull off the win and end that schnied, Smith's turnovers -- and a fumble from receiver Stephen Hill -- ended that hope.
"You turn the ball over four times against the Patriots -- you can go back a number of years on that one," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. "There's no way you win if you turn it over four times. But I know one thing -- we're going to compete, and try to give ourselves an opportunity to win."
They very nearly did, and there were times when Smith looked like the best quarterback on the field. When he had a clean pocket and his receivers caught the ball, Smith made some great deep throws. But he was as bedeviled by his targets as he was unraveled by his own inconsistencies. He finished with 15 completions in 35 attempts for 214 yards, no touchdowns, and those three fatal interceptions.
"I thought Geno had his moments," Ryan said. "I don't know how many balls we dropped today, but it was a bunch. Obviously, his numbers would look a lot different if we caught the football, but it's just unfortunate. The young man had his moments, and we wish we had a few back."
However many balls the Jets' receivers dropped, it wasn't a patch on what Brady got from his receivers. Julian Edelman, the only receiver on the Patriots' active roster with any sort of familiarity with Brady in the regular season, caught 13 passes in 18 targets for 78 yards. His longest catch was for 10 yards. Take away Dobson's 39-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, and he grabbed two balls on nine targets for 17 yards the rest of the game. He dropped a couple of perfectly thrown passes from Brady, and there were other times when Brady and Dobson were just out of sync. Kenbrell Thompkins, New England's preseason star, brought in two passes in seven targets for 49 yards.
The touchdown pass to Dobson was a great example of situational play-calling. The Patriots had third-and-2, and all 11 Jets defenders were either at the line or in the box. The Patriots ran slide protection, moving their offensive line to the right as into run, and the Jets bit on it all the way. Dobson ran a wheel route from the right side of the line off of Brady's perfect play-fake to Stevan Ridley, and Dobson was wide open down the right side. Ryan said after the game it was a clearly blown coverage.
"It looked like they had everybody up pretty close to the line of scrimmage, which they did that quite a bit tonight," Pats head coach Bill Belichick said. "It looked like they had no deep-field player and they were going to get caught up in there in the action. Aaron slipped behind him, and Tom found him. We got behind them several times, we didn’t convert as often as we’d like to or need to, but that was a big one for us."
After that, though ... things went downhill pretty severely. The Patriots had one rushing first down and seven passing first downs. They converted on four of 18 third-down chances, gained just 232 total yards to the Jets' 318, and actually ran fewer plays than the Jets -- 64 to New York's 71. Last week against the Buffalo Bills, the Pats ran 89 plays, which is far more emblematic of the high-paced offense they want to run. This week, New England had more punts than first downs.
"We have a long way to go," Brady said. "Nobody's going to come in and save the day, so we've just got to fight through it. Work harder and do better and try to be more consistent. Hopefully, we can score more points."
There are offenses in which you can get away with younger and less-experienced receivers, but New England's is not one of them. Brady runs an offense with an insane number of option routes, and option anxiety was the result for his targets.
"It just doesn't magically come together -- you've got to work really hard at it," Brady concluded. "The passing game is all about anticipation -- they have to anticipate what I'm going to do, and I have to anticipate what they're going to do. I think it's unrealistic of them to feel like they can do it like 10-year veterans. That's not what they are, but they're trying hard, and they work really hard. They have a lot of skill, and they're great kids."
During the game, Brady was obviously frustrated, both on the field and on the sideline, and he seemed to understand there's a limit to how effective that will be with a patchwork receiver corps.
"I think I have to do a better job with my body language. I definitely can improve that. It's not a real strong point of mine right now."
An unattractive win? Without question. But if the Patriots have to walk around with the "NFL's Ugliest 2-0 Team" title, they'll take it.
"Two games in the division, we knew it was going to be tough games," defensive tackle Vince Wilfork told the NFL Network. "My main thing coming into the season was, can the defense step up? And in two weeks, we've stepped up. Tonight, we sealed it, and it was a hard-fought game, That's what division games are all about. On a short week, we've got to be proud of that. Guys coming into work grinding, and it showed tonight."
Well, the grind was obvious on both sides, and for both teams. The most memorable moment of the night, and for all the wrong reasons, happened with 48 seconds left in the game. Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib picked off his second Smith pass of the evening, and as he went to the sideline, Jets center Nick Mangold went for a tackle at Talib's knees. The corresponding melee (below) saw Mangold flagged for unnecessary roughness, and fellow offensive linemen D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Willie Colon kicked out of the game.