A long exhale…
With tonight’s win over the Jets (4-6), the Patriots (7-3) are now in strong position to close out the AFC East race in the weeks to come. A win in Miami (5-5) in two weeks would stamp out the last reasonable hopes for Miami’s division title defense and give New England their seventh division title this decade.
The Jets made the task easy for the Patriots: QB Mark Sanchez threw four interceptions and lost a fumble. Three picks were thrown to CB Leigh Bodden, the first of which was returned 53 yards for the first score of the game. Pats WR Wes Welker dominated the Jets’ secondary with an astonishing 15 receptions for 192 yards, career highs for him and just one catch short of the Patriots’ franchise record of 16 catches held by Troy Brown. He didn’t reach the end zone, but his longest of the day, a 43-yard bolt, set up a 2-yard Laurence Maroney touchdown run. WR Randy Moss was largely shut out of the game, but scored on a four-yard pass in which he used his superior height and skills to out-position CB Darrelle Revis. The door was slammed shut when Maroney punched in a 1-yard touchdown midway through the final quarter to give the Patriots their final score in a 31-14 victory.
Now, the Patriots can focus on their next goal: securing a bye week for the playoffs. The 10-0 Colts have more or less sealed first place and would have to dramatically fall apart in the final six games to surrender their position. With Cincinnati’s loss to Oakland and San Diego’s rout of Denver, the race to land the AFC’s second seed is now quite murky, with all three teams sharing the same 7-win record. The race for second-place will doubtlessly be one of the stories to watch down the home stretch.
For now, a more significant challenge looms on the horizon. On Monday night, the Pats travel to New Orleans to play the Saints, who are undefeated and largely considered the NFL’s pacesetters. It will take both a firm defense and a high-octane offensive attack to master the Saints, who look to go 4-0 against the teams of the AFC East.