For the fourth time in just seven games, the Patriots nearly blew another fourth-quarter lead.
And for the first time all season, the team found a way to close in crunch time.
As ugly as it could have been, Tom Brady made sure the Pats avoided their fourth loss of the season and their place atop the AFC East.
After struggling to get anything going in the fourth quarter, Brady engineered two signature drives, one coming with less 1:37 left and the other in overtime.
Although they had to settle for field goals in both situations, the defense ended up pulling through when it mattered most, as linebacker Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham teamed up for a game-ending strip-sack of Mark Sanchez.
Though there are still plenty of areas of concern—namely the pass defense and the Brady-Brandon Lloyd connection—the Patriots have to be happy about escaping with a 29-29 victory over their most bitter rival.
Let’s take a look at this week’s risers and fallers.
1. Rob Ninkovich, LB: For the second straight season, Rob Ninkovich is the Patriots’ unsung hero on defense. The versatile 6’2”, 260-pound linebacker/defensive end has been a game-changer in 2012, and his performance against the Jets proved it. Since Week 4, the seven-year veteran has recorded 21 tackles, 3.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. His strip-sack and recovery in overtime sealed the narrow victory for New England.
2. Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo, LBs: Once Dont’a Hightower grows into his own, this unit will be the best in the NFL. For now, the Patriots will settle for the dynamic duo of Mayo & Spikes. Both linebackers punished Jets ball carriers Sunday and were instrumental to holding New York to just 106 yards on the ground. Spikes’ bone-crushing hit on Shonn Greene was a thing of beauty, and Mayo flew to the ball and continued his impressively consistent play. These two have special potential and are the emotional and physical leaders of the defense.
3. Rob Gronkowski, TE: Gronk isn’t on pace to match last year’s record-breaking season, but he’s still been the best tight end in the game. The 6’6”, 265-pound manchild showed tremendous hands in reeling in his first touchdown reception, and his third-quarter score put the Patriots up 10 points. More importantly, he was a reliable target for Brady on New England’s final drive, which ended in a game-tying field goal. With Hernandez getting healthier by the week, Gronk should be freed up to make more plays in the passing game.
4. Stephen Gostowski, K: The former Pro Bowler faced heavy criticism for missing a pair of crucial kicks earlier this season, but he was money on Sunday. He only kicked two field goals, yet they were critical. His 43-yarder at the end of regulation sent the game to OT, and he easily converted a 48-yarder on the Patriots’ only possession in OT, which ended up being the game-winner.
1. Ras-I Dowling, CB: Ever since he went down with a hip injury against Miami in Week 2 last season, it’s been a rough ride for Ras-I. The former top pick of the second round in 2011 has fallen down the depth chart, and his performance Sunday did nothing to suggest he deserves to be on the field. Despite his length and overall size, the former Virginia Cavalier did poorly in coverage, drawing several holding calls. Unless he makes a quick turnaround, he might not be in New England next season.
2. Pass defense: New England might have generated four sacks and an interception, but Mark Sanchez actually picked them apart for the most part. Rookie Alfonzo Dennard had his moments, but he was far from perfect. Kyle Arrington continued to be an easy matchup as Jeremy Kerley toasted the Patriots secondary for 120 yards on seven receptions. New England’s poor safety play and general lack of awareness has resulted in far too many big plays, a potential crippling blow to any Super Bowl hopes.
3. Brandon Lloyd, WR: For all the preseason hype about Brandon Lloyd, he just hasn’t shown me enough. He’s been a solid addition, but he hasn’t been special. Sunday was Lloyd’s worst game as a Patriot, as the former Pro Bowler dropped several potential big catches and just wasn’t on the same page as Brady. His production has made people forget about the failed Chad Ochocinco experiment, but fans and coaches expected more big plays from the veteran wideout. Hopefully he and Brady can continue to develop their chemistry so he can be unleashed as a vertical threat.