Pats safety Gregory was a game-changer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick called defensive end Rob Ninkovich his "Jet killer" following the Patriots' win over the New York Jets last month, but on Thursday night, it was safety Steve Gregory who deserved the monicker.

After missing the last four games, safety Patrick Chung was active on Thursday night, but was not in the starting lineup for the first time since 2010. Instead, it was Gregory and converted cornerback Devin McCourty who continued to hold down the back end of the defense.

Gregory proved his worth on the Jets' second drive of the game, undercutting running back Bilal Powell's route and intercepting quarterback Mark Sanchez at New England's 15-yard line.

"I thought he had a real good play on the interception," Belichick said. "He read the quarterback well and picked up the route."

When things started to unravel for the Jets in the second quarter, it was Gregory again at the center of the rout. He picked up a fourth-and-1 Shonn Greene fumble, setting up an 83-yard Shane Vereen touchdown catch on the next play.

The Jets tried to recover, but two plays later, Gregory who recovered his second loose ball of the game, scooping up a Sanchez fumble and returning it 32 yards for a touchdown.

"It was a good one for me today," Gregory admitted after the game. "Some of that stuff is just the ball popping out, you being in the right place at the right time."

"It was just a good scoop-and-score play," Belichick said. "Steve's a gutty player, a smart player, and is very instinctive and just plays well. He's made a lot of plays for us this year."

After another Jets fumble on the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots found themselves up 28-0 and in control of the game.

"That was a lot of points in a short period of time there. That really set momentum for the game," Gregory said. "It really turned things into a lopsided deal."

Gregory, who grew up in nearby Staten Island, N.Y. and had friends and family in attendance, had a commemorative game ball in his locker after the game.

"It was great coming home. It was exciting for me to come and play in my backyard," he said. "This was a big win for us. It was a huge division game."

Not to be out-done, Ninkovich had a fumble of his own later in the game. It was one of five turnovers in the Patriots' favor, a performance that keeps them atop the NFL in turnover differential.

"In any given situation, we're able to make a big play to kind of turn the game around. That speaks great about how we play the game on defense," Ninkovich said. "We give up some yards that you don't want to have given up, but we have a lot of turnovers, so I think the turnovers are more important than the total yardage that we're giving up."

Powered by the turnovers, the Patriots' string of three touchdowns in a span of 52 seconds took the air out of the crowd of 79,088. Excitement for the prime-time, divisional contest quickly turned into a mix of mock cheers, boos, and outcry for backup quarterback Tim Tebow to enter the game.

"You can kind of feel it when you have those turnovers like that. Just multiple scores on top of each other," Ninkovich said. "It can't feel great on the (opposing) sideline."

Having Patriots fans possibly outnumber the home crowd by the end of the game is a sign of a job well done in any NFL city, but there was a sense in the locker room after Thursday night's game that it was extra gratifying for players to defeat the rival Jets.

"Yeah, definitely," Ninkovich said with a grin. "Of course."