Patriots vs. Jets: New England Grades, Notes and Quotes
Despite looking as outmatched as they've been all year for long stretches, the New England Patriots nearly completed their largest comeback of the season. However, following a controversial coaching decision at the start of overtime, the Pats fell short and dropped a 26-20 decision to the New York Jets.
Following a pair of punts, the Jets generated the first sustained possession, moving inside the Patriots' 10-yard line before settling for a red-zone field goal at the end of a 13-play drive. New England generated just 24 yards of offense in the opening frame, generally appearing tentative and undermanned against a hungry New York squad.
The Pats jumpstarted their offense a bit in the second quarter with some uncharacteristic razzle dazzle before tying the game on kicker Stephen Gostkowski's chip shot. However, the Jets again controlled the clock with a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, using motion and misdirection to keep the Patriots off balance. In the first half, the Jets outgained the Pats, 193-113, and held a four-minute edge in time of possession, dictating the game entirely on their terms.
Following a Tom Brady pick on the opening drive of the second half, Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall caught his second touchdown of the game, beating Pats safety Duron Harmon in a jump-ball situation for a 33-yard score to put Gang Green up, 17-3. The sleepy Pats got a big jumpstart after a 44-yard Gostkowski field goal, with defensive end Jabaal Sheard forcing a fumble on Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, which linebacker Jamie Collins returned for a touchdown to trim New York's lead to 17-13.
Jets kicker Randy Bullock's field goal extended the New York lead back to seven, which is where it stood for most of the fourth quarter. However, Brady engineered a crunch-time, 66-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 20, converting a 4th-and-9 to tight end Rob Gronkowski and capping things off with a nine-yard touchdown to running back James White. A defensive stand in the final two minutes sent the game to overtime.
Upon winning the coin toss, the Pats went against conventional wisdom and deferred. Unfortunately for New England, the decision backfired when Jets wideout Quincy Enunwa had a 48-yard catch-and-run down the sideline, setting up receiver Eric Decker to walk off with a five-yard game-winning TD. Like the 4th-and-2 decision against the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, head coach Bill Belichick's call was probably the mathematically correct one, but the poor outcome for New England will have everyone second-guessing things.
The Patriots are still in the driver's seat for home-field advantage in the AFC, but they will need a Week 17 victory to clinch. Read on for complete analysis of New England's Week 16 defeat.
Position Grades for Patriots
Running Back: C+
Wide Receiver: B
Tight End: A-
Offensive Line: B-
Defensive Line: B
Special Teams: A-
The Patriots had to grind out another outing with depleted offensive personnel, pulling out several misdirection runs and even their first Wildcat snap of the season in an effort to keep the Jets from teeing off on Brady. The New England quarterback ended up 22-of-31 for 231 yards, tossing a touchdown and an interception on an afternoon where sledding was tough.
Rob Gronkowski led the Pats with 86 yards on four receptions, including a clutch 26-yard catch on fourth down to extend the game-tying drive. Wide receiver Keshawn Martin enjoyed a featured role in the offense, garnering team highs with 11 targets and seven catches and ending up with 68 yards total.
Though the front seven struggled for most of the afternoon (more on that later), Jabaal Sheard did catalyze New England's comeback with that critical third-quarter strip sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick, which Jamie Collins returned to pull the Pats within one score. For a team that looked tired up until that point, it's fair to call Sheard's play a turning point in the game.
Unfortunately, the secondary had an afternoon to forget, missing tackles throughout the game and collapsing in overtime. Brandon Marshall teed off on the bracket coverage from cornerback Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon, amassing 115 yards and two scores on eight catches. Safety Jordan Richards had his share of difficulties starting in place of Patrick Chung, while backups Leonard Johnson and Justin Coleman were also targeted regularly.
Pats Lose After Deferring in OT
Since the NFL switched to its new overtime format, getting the ball first has no longer been as massive of an advantage as it was before. The record of teams receiving first was exactly .500 headed into the 2015 season, according to Football Outsiders' Scott Kacsmar, suggesting that game-specific situations should now dictate whether teams choose to receive or defer to start overtime.
Still, almost no one defers, which is why there will be significant controversy around the decision. More distressingly, it appears Matthew Slater did not even get to choose the wind, as we'll see shortly. Given how easily the Jets moved the ball on their drive, though, it seems unlikely it would have altered the bottom line had the Patriots gotten to defend the opposite side.
Remember, Belichick made a similar decision when he handed Peyton Manning the ball to start overtime in 2013. The weather conditions were much more adverse on that particular night, but that was also the season Manning broke the record for most passing touchdowns and passing yards. Of the two situations, that one seems like the far riskier move, even though the Pats happened to escape that particular game with a win.
Outcome bias should not affect sound decision-making, so we'll see if Belichick is more gun-shy in the future about deferring in overtime. We'll have further analysis on this decision later in this article, including an explanation from Slater about his confusion during the coin toss.
Sebastian Vollmer Carted off
The Patriots did not escape unscathed, as left tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down with an ugly-looking knee injury. Vollmer's leg got twisted when a running back fell onto him, a play which evoked a similar scene from the 2013 season when Vollmer fractured his leg. David Chao, a former NFL physician who now writes about injuries, speculated that the injury could be debilitating based on video review:
After the game, the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian reported that Vollmer was "hopeful it's a sprain." However, until he undergoes an MRI on Monday, we won't know whether the injury is season-ending.
In the meantime, the Pats inserted LaAdrian Waddle at left tackle in Vollmer's stead. Since coming into the league in 2013, Waddle has started 24 career games at right tackle, all with the Detroit Lions. However, after an injury-plagued offseason and regular season, Waddle was released, allowing New England to claim him last week.
Of course, Waddle then left the game with a shoulder injury, though he remained on the sideline and was seen attempting to massage the area. Cameron Fleming came into the game for Waddle, and if Waddle is healthy enough to play next week, the Patriots will face decisions on where they should play the trio of Waddle, Fleming and Marcus Cannon.
Run Defense Struggles
Though the Jets won the game on the arm of Fitzpatrick in overtime, New York was in position to win because of how it controlled the line of scrimmage. In the October game, the Patriots made the Jets one-dimensional, holding them to just 3.1 yards per carry. Gang Green's ground game thrived in the rematch, though, compiling 143 yards on 5.3 yards per attempt.
While Chris Ivory struggled mightily, passing back Bilal Powell had lots of success on shotgun draws up the middle. Powell ran for 56 yards on just seven carries, serving as the Jets' most dangerous back before departing the game in the fourth quarter with an injury. Old friend Stevan Ridley ran better than Ivory and took over in the second half, carrying the ball seven times for 36 yards.
In the big picture, this isn't necessarily a huge concern. Though the Patriots gave up their third-highest rushing total of the season, they had held eight of their past nine opponents under 4.0 yards per carry. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich was able to play through an ankle injury he suffered and linebacker Dont'a Hightower was able to finish the game with his knee injury, so the personnel along the front seven is healthier than it is at most other spots.
Still, it was disappointing to see the Patriots shredded throughout the first half in particular, as Fitzpatrick's accuracy was inconsistent throughout the afternoon. Had they forced the Jets quarterback to carry the offense again, perhaps the Pats could have enjoyed the same result as the first game.
Matthew Slater: Plan Was to Kick
When Matthew Slater appeared confused after the coin toss, many observers may have assumed the Patriots meant to take the ball, only to mistakenly kick. However, Slater explained afterward that he was simply confused because New England did not choose which side to defend:
Slater said the plan was indeed to kick if they won the toss.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) December 27, 2015
Only confusion resulted because Slater also thought they could choose which direction to kick.— Jeff Howe (@jeffphowe) December 27, 2015
Though the Patriots did tie the game on their final offensive drive, the whole afternoon was a struggle for the offense. Brady needed to convert a pair of fourth-down throws simply to keep that tying drive alive, and the Pats averaged just 5.2 yards per play on the afternoon.
It's easy to criticize the decision to kick in hindsight, especially since it went against accepted conventional expectations. However, the defense had also forced the Jets to punt on each of their prior three possessions and held them out of the end zone for the entire fourth quarter. Given the state of New England's offense, getting a hold and asking Brady to merely lead a field-goal drive was probably a higher percentage play.
The decision failed, and if the defense was as gassed as it appeared in overtime, perhaps that changes the context of choosing to kick off. Considering the game flow up to that point, though, it was hardly an egregious failure on Belichick's part.
Logan Ryan Shoulders the Blame
Logan Ryan has developed nicely in his third season, performing well against Brandon Marshall in Week 7 and shutting down Pro Bowlers like Demaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins in the second half of the season. However, Ryan had one of his roughest afternoons Sunday, getting roasted by Marshall regularly despite frequent safety help:
Logan Ryan placed blame on himself, first and foremost. Said he lost his matchup to Marshall. Not the case 1st time teams played— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) December 27, 2015
This game underscored the value of Devin McCourty, who had been instrumental in aiding Ryan in some of those top matchups. Ryan does not possess the size to deal with someone like Marshall, who often simply high-pointed the ball to prevent Ryan from making a play on the ball.
Duron Harmon has been a solid dime safety, but he is not the same down-to-down playmaker as McCourty. Getting its All-Pro free safety healthy might be the top priority for the New England defense before the postseason.