FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Another game was slipping away from the New England Patriots down the stretch. This time, their opponent made the biggest mistakes.
The New York Jets’ final failure came when Rob Ninkovich knocked the ball out of Mark Sanchez’s hand in overtime and recovered the fumble, ending a 29-26 win Sunday that gave the Patriots sole possession of first place in the AFC East.
For the fourth time this season, a Patriots game was decided in the final two minutes. And, for the first time, they won.
So, the Patriots (4-3) are alone atop their division. The day started with all four teams tied at 3-3, but the Jets and the Buffalo Bills lost, while the Miami Dolphins were idle.
“There’s a lot of football left to be played,” New England Coach Bill Belichick said. “I don’t think anybody clinched anything today.”
Stephen Gostkowski’s 48-yard field goal put the Patriots ahead on the first possession of overtime. But each team gets the ball unless the first team with it scores a touchdown. So the Jets weren’t done.
The game might not have reached overtime had they capitalized on their chances late in regulation.
“We made too many mistakes but we had our opportunities,” New York Coach Rex Ryan said. “It just stinks being on this end of it.”
Trailing 23-20, Sanchez threw a good pass to an open Stephen Hill that would have given the Jets a first down inside the Patriots 20-yard line with just over two minutes left. But Hill dropped it and New York settled for a 43-yard tying field goal by Nick Folk.
“I think he was trying to make a big play,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to catch the ball first then worry about making the run.”
Then, Devin McCourty fumbled the kickoff and Antonio Allen recovered for the Jets.
“Our emotions were high and everyone was full of energy,” Allen said, “but they took it right back.”
Sanchez was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third down and Folk kicked another 43-yarder for a 26-23 lead with 1:37 to go in the fourth quarter.
So all the Patriots needed to force overtime was a field goal, and Gostkowski kicked a 43-yarder on the final play of regulation.
After Gostkowski’s overtime field goal, the Jets moved to their 40 before Ninkovich got around right tackle Austin Howard and hit Sanchez high while Jermaine Cunningham got him low for a sack. The ball came loose, Ninkovich pounced on it and Belichick went out and patted Ninkovich on the helmet.
“In overtime, Bill came to us and said we’re going to need the rush,” defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We all understood that we had to get after it.”
Said Sanchez: “We got pressure inside and I didn’t feel Ninkovich on the outside.”
So the Patriots escaped with a win after blowing a 10-point lead in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter.
In their other losses, Gostkowski missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt on the next to last play of a 20-18 loss to Arizona, Justin Tucker kicked a 27-yarder on the last play of a 31-30 Baltimore win and Sidney Rice caught a 46-yard touchdown pass with 1:18 left in Seattle’s 24-23 victory.
“It comes down to a few plays,” Tom Brady said. “We had opportunities last week (at Seattle). We had opportunities against Baltimore. We had opportunities against the Cardinals, and when you make the plays you win the game.”
On Sunday, the Jets rallied from a 23-13 deficit in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter on a 7-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Dustin Keller and Folk’s third and fourth field goals.
But Brady marched the Patriots downfield after starting at his 21-yard line to put Gostkowski in position to force overtime.
Brady completed 26 of 42 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski. Sanchez was 28 for 41 for 328 yards and one touchdown.
The Patriots led 16-10 at halftime, scoring on offense, defense and special teams.
Trailing 7-0 after Shonn Greene’s 1-yard touchdown run, the Patriots scored on the next play when McCourty returned a kickoff 104 yards, second in team history only to Ellis Hobbs’ 108-yard return. Both came against the Jets.
Then, the offense came through on Brady’s 17-yard scoring pass to Gronkowski. And the defense followed with a safety two minutes into the second quarter when Sanchez deliberately kicked a loose ball beyond the back of the end zone after Greene’s fumble.
The Jets nearly reached the other end zone midway through the second quarter when Hill got open in front of the right corner of the end zone, but Sanchez’s long pass came up short and rookie Alfonzo Dennard intercepted at the Patriots 2.
Folk kicked a 54-yard field goal with 2 seconds left in the first half and a 21-yarder on the first series of the third quarter.
Brady then threw a 2-yard scoring pass to Gronkowski for a 23-13 lead late in the third quarter.