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Despite loss to Jets, short-handed Patriots show grit; still in good position

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One of the most admirable traits of Bill Belichick’s best New England Patriots teams over the years is that they persevere through adversity and give themselves a chance to win despite sometimes crippling personnel losses.

The 2015 Patriots certainly have that quality.

In one respect, Sunday’s 26-20 overtime loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium was a bitter disappointment because the game was there for the taking and the Patriots -- whose clutch fourth-quarter touchdown drive tied the game to send it into overtime -- couldn’t close it out.

But in another respect, this is the type of game that serves as a reminder of why the Patriots are still viewed by many as a top Super Bowl contender in the AFC, and that probably explains why Belichick and the team’s locker room didn’t seem as sullen as one might expect afterward.

“It says a lot about us. We have a lot of character on this team,” said special-teams captain Matthew Slater, who faced a barrage of questions after the unusual turn of events at the start of overtime, when the Patriots elected to kick off after winning the coin toss.

“We have guys coming in the last couple of weeks that are new to the team and we’ve still been competitive and still been successful. It’s hard every week when you look up and a guy is being carted off or coming out of the game; it’s hard on the emotions when you see that [but] we have to do the best we can to keep competing. Nobody is going to call off the game because [those guys are] hurt. It doesn’t work that way.”

It doesn’t, and yet the 12-3 Patriots still control their playoff positioning. If they win next Sunday against the Miami Dolphins on the road, they will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC and clinch home-field advantage. They already have a much-needed first-round playoff bye.

On Sunday, they were facing a desperate Jets team playing at home that needed to win to keep its playoff hopes alive. The Patriots entered without four key starters in receivers Danny Amendola (left knee) and Julian Edelman (left foot) and safeties Devin McCourty (ankle) and Patrick Chung (foot/hip), and with a clearly-less-than-100-percent Dont'a Hightower at linebacker (left knee).

Then during the game, they watched as their most experienced and arguably most talented offensive lineman, Sebastian Vollmer, was carted off with a left leg injury that appeared to be serious. His backup, LaAdrian Waddle, also didn’t finish the game because of a shoulder injury, and neither did rookie safety Jordan Richards or rookie cornerback Justin Coleman.

Add in the 17 players who have been placed on season-ending injured reserve this year, and consider that 76 different players have occupied a spot on the 53-man roster, and it’s been a weekly battle of attrition.

Yet they were right there at the end against the Jets, despite playing poor run defense (the Jets had 143 yards on 27 carries) and struggling on third down offensively (finishing 1-of-10).

“It’s tough,” acknowledged quarterback Tom Brady, who hung in Sunday to direct the impressive fourth-quarter scoring drive that included two fourth-down conversions to tight end Rob Gronkowski.

“We’ve had so many guys that have stepped in and have tried to do a great job. We just had some back luck, truthfully. The game always ebbs and flows, and [the team is] missing some guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever used those excuses and we had opportunities to win this game.”

As Belichick said, “We had our chances; we just came up a little bit short. I thought all our guys competed hard.”

They almost always do, which should serve them well. Despite the loss, all is not lost.

“I’m glad we fought to the end. I think we have some mental toughness,” Brady said. “A lot of guys have been in and out of the lineup, a lot of guys coming in off the street trying to play and help us win. It’s never easy.

“If we just get our guys, everyone out there and practice together and see what we’re made of, I think that’ll be a great thing. Ultimately, we’ve got to go win next week, that’s a huge game for us. And then you have time to try to improve and be at your best two weeks in the playoffs.”