- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Patriots quarterback surmised we'd learn what New England was "made of" in the wake of lining up against the team he loathes, the New York Jets, with ramifications pertaining to the AFC East title and potential home-field advantage in the playoffs hanging in the balance.
Steel? No, in spite of their stunning 37-16 trouncing of the Jets, Tom Brady's boys are hardly impenetrable. Wood? Although their defense has proven to be flammable at inopportune times, that seems a bit excessive, particularly in the wake of a game in which a bunch of no-name players, some of whom were plucked from the practice squad, accounted for a number of the biggest plays of the night.
"What are we made of?" said Sterling Moore, one of those defenders who required a "Hello, my name is" tag. "I'd say grit. A bunch of guys that grind."
Truth is, these New England Patriots aren't as easily identifiable as their decorated predecessors who sport Super Bowl rings and regale us with tales of glory. This rendition of the Patriots is statistically among the worst teams in football on the defensive side of the ball, so thin in the secondary that Moore, a cornerback by trade, started at safety in this game, and receiver Julian Edelman was on the field in the final minutes as a corner.
Raise your hand if you know what position Niko Koutouvides plays, or where he went to college, or why any of this is significant. (Linebacker/Purdue/he recovered a fumble in Sunday's game).
This is what the 2011 Patriots are all about. Who needs James Sanders or Brandon Meriweather when you can have Sterling Moore and Antwaun Molden? The transactions leave our heads spinning, as Gronkowskis come and go, and come back again before they finally depart for good -- we think. (The Gronk who has been here for the long haul, incidentally, had another monster game with eight catches for 113 yards).
After the Patriots lost two in a row, including -- cover your eyes! -- a game at home to the New York Giants, there appeared to be more questions than answers regarding the once redoubtable franchise. The coach's personnel decisions came under scrutiny. So did some of the quarterback's throws. At one time, Belichick and Brady were like bread and butter -- smooth, seamless, a comforting, unbeatable combination.
Or so we thought. The frustration was evident on the faces both cornerstones as the Patriots bumbled games from both sides of the ball, as yet another high profile addition (Albert Haynesworth) failed to embrace the Patriot Way, as yet another game slipped through their fingers in the final, critical minutes, as both the quarterback and the coach faltered in startling, uncharacteristic fashion.
And that's why this matchup, in many ways, was their season. A defeat would have dropped the Patriots to 5-4 and left them with two losses in the division. Instead, it's the Jets who must contend with a 5-4 mark and ponder whether their future holds more than a glimmer of postseason hope.
"If we win this game," Jets safety Jim Leonhard mused, "we kind of have a stranglehold on the division. But we let it slip away "
As injuries mounted for the Buffalo Bills and their early-season mojo began dissipating, it became apparent the AFC East again would come down to Boston vs. New York, Patriots vs. Jets, Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan, Tom Brady vs. Darrelle Revis and the heralded Jets secondary.
"There was a sense of urgency to this game this week," conceded tackle Matt Light, "and [Brady] tends to do pretty well in those situations. A statement game? Every time we play the Jets it's a statement game."
Even so, there were moments, particularly in the first half, when the offense again appeared to be teetering on the brink of disaster. A couple of Brady throws were off target, nearly picked off, and he admitted to falling victim to some hesitation and indecision throughout the course of the game.
And yet it was Brady who masterfully guided his team 84 yards down the field in his treasured no-huddle offense in the fourth quarter, chewing up 6 minutes, 51 seconds before culminating the drive with an 8-yard touchdown strike to Deion Branch that vaulted New England to a 30-16 lead and put the game away.
So now the local malaise has been replaced by relief, and a smidgeon of bravado. Before Brady took to the postgame podium, he spent a few moments querying local scribes, asking, "Did you pick us to lose?"
It appears this morning the "rejuvenated" Jets are even more flawed than the Patriots, which is what we all thought earlier in the season, before doubt enveloped Foxborough and hope revived the faithful at the Meadowlands.
There are reasons to believe the Patriots' fortunes have turned, primarily because New England's remaining opponents have a woeful combined record of 21-43. The Patriots have the easiest schedule in the league from here on out, which will undoubtedly lead to a bushel of W's and renewed talk that they just might be an elite team after all.
We know better. They aren't there yet.
"It's just so up and down outside our locker room," Branch said. "We started out 2-0 and we were the best team ever. We lost one game and it was, 'We can't do this, we can't do that.' Then we lost two games and it was, 'Oh, this team is terrible.' I don't know what it means now that we've beaten the Jets. I guess we're the best again?"
Not exactly. The margin of error for this Patriots team remains very, very small. And although Brady's numbers were gaudy (26-for-39, 329 yards, 3 TDs, 118.4 passer rating), he still doesn't have a legitimate downfield threat or a smashmouth running back to balance the offensive scales.
Defensively, the road will only be rockier amid reports that Devin McCourty separated his shoulder, leaving a depleted secondary more vulnerable than ever. There were some heartening developments Sunday, among them legitimate pressure on the opposing quarterback by Andre Carter (4.5 sacks) and Mark Anderson, but the defense still relinquished 306 passing yards against a pedestrian quarterback.
No one was interested in discussing the negatives in the wake of an old-fashioned gut-check win. Asked what he learned about his team, Brady offered, "I think we battle."
What are the New England Patriots made of? On this night, they were a mix of grit and gristle and sweat.
Next week is anyone's guess.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.