FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- There are a couple of different ways to view the New England Patriots' 17-16 escape over the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, depending on your preference to sway more to the pessimistic or optimistic sides of things.
Things not to feel so good about? The Patriots’ offensive line struggled mightily in pass protection as this game resembled a few of the franchise’s most painful defeats in recent memory, most notably two Super Bowls against the New York Giants. If this is the way it’s going to be going forward, it won’t be good enough. An up-and-down pass rush and receivers struggling to get open consistently are also on the list.
Things to feel good about? This team continues to find ways to win by rising up in critical situations. It overcame the absences of key starters in left guard Dan Connolly (knee) and receiver Julian Edelman (concussion) on Sunday. They are one win away (or a Broncos loss Monday night against Cincinnati) from having the AFC playoffs run through their home stadium where they’re especially tough to beat. Oh, and even though it might be easy to forget at times, it's hard to win in the NFL.
Take your pick, but before you do, let’s briefly pause to give due to one much-maligned player who delivered a performance that was critical in the Patriots’ too-close-for-comfort victory over the Jets. If the Patriots didn’t have receiver Danny Amendola, this probably would have been a loss.
How many times have we said that?
By our count, it has been exactly three times since Amendola signed a five-year, $28.5 million contract in March of 2013. He was immense in the season opener against Buffalo that year before hurting his groin. He came up with a clutch touchdown grab on third-and-19 in the Patriots’ 27-25 win over the Jets on Oct. 16 earlier this season. This Sunday, he finished with a team-high eight catches for 63 yards to go along with a 39-yard punt return that set up the team’s first touchdown.
If there was one play that perfectly summed up Amendola’s contributions Sunday, and the Patriots’ overall performance, it was on the final drive to run out the clock while clinging to the 17-16 lead. Facing third-and-7 with 4:38 remaining from the Patriots’ own 45-yard line, Amendola caught a quick receiver screen on the left side and ran seven yards for the first down.
It was close. Real close, as Jets coach Rex Ryan unsuccessfully challenged the spot and the Patriots ultimately gained two more first downs to expertly close out the game in the four-minute offense.
“A quick screen-and-run and I knew we had a chance when I saw the opening,” Amendola recalled. “Huge block outside by BT [Brian Tyms]; that set it up. Then the tackle pulls out and cleans out anything that’s there, and we ended up squeezing out enough yards. We got it by just enough.”
They got it by just enough -- both on that play and the game itself.
Up to this point, “just enough” also could have applied to Amendola’s role in the offense. He has been locked in to the No. 3 receiver spot, but with the Patriots going away from three-receiver packages in recent weeks in favor of more multiple tight-end packages, he has hardly played. Last Sunday against Miami, for example, he was on the field for a season-low 12 offensive snaps.
But things change quickly in the NFL and when Edelman was concussed over the past week and unavailable for action, it required the Patriots to call Amendola’s number to the tune of 44 offensive snaps Sunday, his third highest total of the season.
“He did a great job and he’s been really looking for this opportunity,” quarterback Tom Brady said of Amendola, who played in both two- and three-receiver packages, and was on the field for a key in-game adjustment in the third quarter when the Patriots went to an up-tempo approach with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright that helped them establish their best rhythm of the day.
Make no mistake, the Patriots still missed Edelman, who is Brady’s go-to option, especially when pressure is bearing down on him. Edelman's absence was probably why Rex Ryan said, “I thought we could match up on the outside, which really allows us to play defense the way we want to.”
So the Jets had the upper hand for most of the day, but when the Patriots needed it most, they had the answers. Amendola, whose contributions to this point of the season were more on special teams (15 catches, 113 yards entering the game), was a big part of that being the case.
“That’s why we work so hard, so we can get out there and play,” Amendola said. “We work really hard together and the good thing about this team is that there are no selfish players out here. I wasn’t out there counting snaps, just trying to get my job done.”
He did it well. His 44 offensive snaps were well more than his average of 26 per game entering this week.
No Amendola, no victory -- on a day the Patriots weren't at their best, this was the hard-to-miss storyline.