EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. –- Modesty and focus color the New England Patriots. It serves them well when they are wheezing against an opponent that is energized and desperate like the Jets were on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
New England won at San Francisco prior to arriving there. They had traveled back from the west coast for a Thanksgiving week of work and saw quarterback Tom Brady miss two days of practice while nurturing a tender knee. Early in the game, tight end Rob Gronkowski was lost to a back injury. New England trailed 10-0 before managing its first lead midway into the third quarter. It trailed again, 17-13, early in the fourth quarter.
But the difference between the Patriots (9-2) and the Jets (3-8) is not only their stark records.
There is a modesty and focus about the Patriots that the Jets lack. There is a will among the Patriots that is tough to match and even tougher to snuff.
They won it with 1:56 left when Brady smoked a pass 8 yards into the front corner of the end zone for rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell. They worked the winner on cornerback Darrelle Revis who played for the Jets, then the Patriots, now the Jets again. It was clear the Patriots knew his flaws better than most, pinpointing him for the final points of a 22-17 victory.
Brady won his 200th NFL game. Besides his talent, he again displayed that modesty and focus are his guides.
"Well, it’s a tough team to prepare for and there was a lot of time I wish I had spent on the practice field that I was spending getting treatment," Brady said. "So, I’d rather have more time to prepare mentally on the practice field than do what happened, but that’s the way it goes. It was Thanksgiving week, kind of a different week in itself. It’s a team sport. Individual awards and things like that mean that I’ve been a part of great teams with great coaches and great teammates and I’ve had a lot of really great support over the years, so hopefully we can keep winning. It never gets old."
Some people keep tossing it all back on Brady -– this, another enduring Patriots victory, another vivid Patriots season. They want to make him the beginning, middle, and end of it all. But the Patriots do not live that way. They do not foster that feeling among them. Their modesty, their focus lifts them all.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick knew that kicker Stephen Gostkowski had drilled a 41-yard field goal with 7:06 left that cut the Jets’ lead to 17-16.
Belichick remembered that his defense then forced the Jets offense to punt with 5:04 left. Belichick realized, before Brady to Mitchell, that running back James White made a fourth-and-4 catch of 4 yards that preserved the drive. That two plays later, receiver Chris Hogan made a 25-yard catch. That after Brady to Mitchell, end Chris Long stripped the ball from Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick so that teammate Trey Flowers could recover it at the Jets’ 34-yard line with 1:43 left. Belichick saw bruising running back LeGarrette Blount on third-and-2 rumble 23 yards for a first down that allowed the Patriots to kneel for the next three plays and extinguish the clock.
What makes Tom Brady great, Belichick was asked?
"He’s a good player," Belichick said. "We have a lot of good players. A lot of guys compete hard. Like I said, they all work hard. We had contributions from all three units. We got contributions from a lot of players. We didn’t turn the ball over. We ran it. We threw it. We defended, covered, kicked, returned. I thought a lot of guys stepped up and competed. Tom did a great job, but so did the other 45 guys. The coaching staff did a good job."
This is the essence of the Patriots.
It’s the kind of message that a special team repeatedly speaks and consistently lives.
Everybody knows Tom Brady is great. But the Patriots keep him in the middle of things, not on the edges as if he deserves a status larger than the team. Brady willingly remains there.
Some of his teammates are not shy about keeping him there.
This message from Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler when asked about Brady’s toughness was a gem: "It’s the NFL. You have to play hurt sometimes with bumps and bruises. There are a lot of other people on this team doing it as well. He’s tough."
It creates an environment where players from every nook of the team are expected to make game-winning plays. It is the type of modesty and focus the Jets need.
"They made one more play than we did," Jets coach Todd Bowles said. "We should have gotten off the field on fourth down, but they made a play. Then they made another play. We have to find a way to make those plays."
New England plays at home next against the Rams and then the Ravens. It goes to Denver. Then home again against the Jets. It finishes the regular season at Miami. The Patriots will lose no more than two of those games and could win them all.
The Brady four-game Deflatgate suspension to start the season seems like a galaxy ago. They are ripping through the AFC East again. They are winning big games. They are winning close games.
I asked Blount about it. He gladly, fittingly answered.
"We made a lot of big plays to win this game," Blount said. "It’s discipline. It’s dependability. It’s play calling. It’s heart, toughness, a will to win the game. Dig deep. We’re not the biggest talkers in the league. We know how to zero in on the task."
It’s how championships are won. You can sense the Patriots’ belief that this team has enough modesty and focus to do it.