Tom Brady is now tied with Peyton Manning for the most wins in NFL history, but his performance against the New York Jets Sunday was hardly a vintage effort. After missing two days of practice last week with a knee injury, he overthrew receivers and didn’t always look comfortable in the pocket. But when the game mattered most, Brady was flawless. He engineered his 50th career game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, changing the perception surrounding this team in just a matter of minutes.
Though the Patriots are sitting atop the AFC with a 9-2 record, something seemed to be amiss in November. The reliably dominant Pats seemed to be…wobbling. The puzzling Jamie Collins trade left a struggling defense with few playmakers and a thin linebacking corps. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard was second on the club in sacks last season, but curiously didn’t make the trip last week when the Patriots traveled to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Bill Belichick, who declines to share even routine injury information with the press, wrote a fawning endorsement letter to Donald Trump—which the president-elect read aloud the night before the election.
At the start of the fourth quarter Sunday, the Patriots were on the verge of dropping their second game in three weeks. But then Brady did what he’s now done 200 times in his career: He won. The four-time Super Bowl champion completed 6-of-9 passes for 83 yards in his final drive, including two throws that beat onetime teammate Darrelle Revis. The series culminated with a pretty pass to rookie wideout Malcolm Mitchell, who hauled in his second touchdown catch on a career day to give the Patriots a 22-17 lead.
Malcolm Mitchell beats Revis for his second touchdown of the day! https://t.co/Ry8uxn915U
— UGA Football Live (@UGAfootballLive) November 28, 2016
On the Jets’ next drive, the defense seemed to take its cue from Brady. Veteran pass-rusher Chris Long made a big play, sacking Fitzpatrick and stripping the football. Three Brady kneels later, the Patriots were back on track.
Sunday was far from the Patriots’ best effort. In addition to the spotty defense and largely unproductive offense, Stephen Gostkowski missed his fourth field goal of the season and Bill Belichick made a rare clock management mistake late in the first half. But all of those errors were overshadowed by a trademark late-game Brady drive. Suddenly, after finding themselves on tenuous ground, the Patriots became Super Bowl favorites once again.
Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick outplayed Brady for most of the afternoon. He connected with wide receiver Quincy Enunwa for his second touchdown of the afternoon with 10:56 remaining in regulation, pushing New York ahead by four points. Fitzpatrick is one of the worst quarterbacks in football, but looked comfortable while he was on the field. The Patriots didn’t record a single sack until late in the game and also failed to pick him off. Malcolm Butler, their No. 1 cornerback, was beaten on both of Fitzpatrick’s touchdown throws.
— FanDuel (@FanDuel) November 27, 2016
Two weeks after taking a blistering shot from Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, Brady appeared to be hobbled—leading some to speculate whether Belichick should’ve started Jimmy Garoppolo under center. To make matters worse, Rob Gronkowski, who sat out last week with a chest injury that he also suffered against the Seahawks, left the game in the first half with an apparent back injury. Though it reportedly isn’t serious, Gronkowski’s status over the next couple of days will once again be a major storyline.
If the Patriots had lost to the three-win Jets Sunday, their Super Bowl hopes would’ve been in serious doubt. Instead of holding onto the top seed in the AFC, they would’ve been only one game ahead of the 7-4 Miami Dolphins in the division. Comparisons to the 2009 club, which was mired in locker room drama and meekly bowed out to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round of the playoffs, would’ve been inevitable.
But instead of a demoralizing loss, Brady’s stellar late-game effort made the Patriots’ win Sunday their most rewarding to date. The defense stepped up in the end, too, with Long’s strip-sack icing the win. A come-from-behind drive and game-clinching turnover is what led the Patriots to victory in Super Bowl 49 and could once again prove to make the difference. It’s amazing how much a game-winning Brady drive can change.
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