The team known for its lethal passing offense, which in a record-breaking season six years ago was accused by some of running up the score, could hardly generate any positive momentum Thursday night. It was about as ugly as we’ve seen since Tom Brady became the team’s starting quarterback in 2001.
So the Patriots needed the defense to save the day, and the unit delivered in a rain-soaked 13-10 victory over the New York Jets. That hasn’t happened too often around these parts.
“We know that this year, whatever situation we’re in, it might have to be the defense that’s going to have to win the game for us,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “We welcome that. A 13-10 win sounds good to me.”
It might not sound good to Patriots fans who crave another Super Bowl championship and are wondering what happened to a once-unstoppable offense led by a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback. That’s the big issue facing the team at the moment, and there’s no overlooking it.
Just don’t tell that to Patriots defenders who left Gillette Stadium late Thursday night feeling especially good about themselves after producing four turnovers -– the 29th consecutive game in which they’ve forced at least one -- while coming up with a final stop late in the fourth quarter to preserve the result.
“Over the years our offense has bailed us out so many times. It’s good to get a win like this,” said linebacker Jerod Mayo, one of the team’s captains.
“I think we’re building toward something that can be pretty good for us,” added defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, another captain. “It will be good for the defense to take the field and guys have the confidence around us, on the other side of the ball and special teams, knowing that we’re going to close out games. There’s a lot of confidence being built right now.”
It has obviously helped that they’ve gone against rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Geno Smith, who have been generous at crucial points in the first two games. The Patriots haven’t been doing too much out of the norm schematically, playing either a base 4-3 or 4-2-5 nickel, with a big focus in the opening weeks on keeping both athletic signal-callers in the pocket.
After failing to produce a sack in the opener against the Bills, New England rung up four on Thursday night, two by defensive end Chandler Jones and one apiece from rookie Michael Buchanan and Tommy Kelly. Meanwhile, the secondary was at its ball-hawking best, with cornerback Aqib Talib notching two interceptions and forcing a fumble, while cornerback Alfonzo Dennard added a pick.
As it turned out, Smith completed three passes to the Jets in the fourth quarter, and three to the Patriots.
“The defense stepped it up and did what we had to do to win the game. That’s the way it has to be sometimes,” said Ninkovich, the Bill Belichick-declared “Jet Killer” who had six tackles and a forced fumble Thursday.
It just hasn’t been that way in New England very often. And a lingering question is how long the Patriots might be able to sustain if things continue down this path.
As Brady talked about wanting “to do a better job on offense and carry our end,” defenders were happy to pick up the slack.
"We have guys banged up, we have some young guys over there, and we know it's going to take time for them to learn and develop," safety Devin McCourty said. "That's how a team works. There will be nights, maybe next game, where we don't play as well and we'll need them to step up and they'll do that. We just need to keep playing off each other.
“We have all faith in our offense. Right now, it will probably be a huge deal and everyone will want to talk about it,” he continued. “[But] we have no concerns with those guys. We know they’re working hard, we’re all getting better as a team, and it will work out.”
Wilfork echoed those thoughts.
“Tom’s been around the game for a while, so he knows how to handle the situation that he’s in. Those guys work their tails off, so it’s not a lack of effort,” he said. “It’s just getting the confidence and being able to make those plays, and once those guys start developing and getting more experience, I think you’ll start seeing a different ball club.”
Until they get there -- assuming they actually do -- they’ll need the defense to keep them in games. The tables have indeed been turned.