FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots played just well enough to win the game. They still haven’t shown they have what it takes to win their division.
Not if they keep wasting leads.
The Patriots escaped with a 29-26 overtime victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, one week after squandering a 23-10 lead they held midway through the fourth quarter in a 24-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
“Those last couple of drives we moved the ball better” against the Jets, Tom Brady said. “I wouldn’t say they were great drives, but they were good enough.”
Enough for the Patriots to take sole possession of first place in the AFC East, where all four teams began the day at 3-3. The Patriots (4-3) lead the Jets and Buffalo Bills (both 3-4) and the Miami Dolphins (3-3), who were idle Sunday.
“We know the Jets are going to be there all the way through,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “There’s a lot of football left to be played. I don’t think anybody clinched anything today. I don’t think anybody got eliminated today.”
The Patriots led 16-10 at halftime and 23-13 after Brady and Rob Gronkowski connected on their second touchdown of the game, a 2-yarder with 2:39 left in the third quarter. New York rallied to go ahead 26-23 when Mark Sanchez threw a 7-yard scoring pass to Dustin Keller with 5:44 to go in regulation and Nick Folk kicked two 43-yard field goals with 2:06 and 1:37 remaining. The second followed Antonio Allen’s recovery of Devin McCourty’s fumble on the kickoff.
“Our emotions were high and everyone was full of energy,” Allen said, “but they took it right back.”
Brady led a 54-yard drive capped by Stephen Gostkowski’s 43-yard field goal on the last play of the fourth quarter. The Patriots got the ball to start overtime and another 54-yard series set up Gostkowski’s go-ahead 48-yard kick.
If the first team with the ball gets anything less than a touchdown, the other team gets a chance.
Sanchez moved the Jets from their 15-yard line to their 40. Then he was hit low by Jermaine Cunningham and high by Rob Ninkovich for a sack. The ball popped out and Ninkovich recovered it, ending the game.
For the fourth time this season, a Patriots game was decided in the final two minutes. And, for the first time, they won.
“The whole time I’m thinking, `Hey, this can’t happen again. We’ve just got to fight all four quarters, hold them to a field goal at the end,”‘ Ninkovich said. “In overtime we said, `Hey, it’s overtime. We know we’re going to get a chance, so let’s go out there and finish this game.”‘
The game might not have reached overtime had the Jets 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 a wide-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 one of Folk’s four field goals.
“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 the Jets managed only a field goal after Allen’s recovery.
“We said it earlier in the week,” Sanchez said. “You can’t kick field goals against this team. You’ve got to get seven points.”
In the Patriots three 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 victory.
“It comes down to a few plays,” Brady said. “When you make the plays you win the game.”
Brady completed 26 of 42 passes for 259 yards. Sanchez was 28 for 41 for a season-high 328 yards and one touchdown.
But it was the strip sack on the last play that decided the game.
“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.”
That play ruined the Jets’ chance to go 3-0 in the division and take over first place by themselves.
“It makes this one hurt a little more,” Sanchez said. “The most important thing is next week. We’ve got a shot against Miami at home and then we’ll end up getting (the Patriots) in the back end at home as well.”
NOTES: The Jets rushed for 106 yards, led by Shonn Greene’s 54. A week earlier in a 35-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts, he had a career-high 161 of the Jets 252 yards rushing. … McCourty returned a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown, the second longest in team history as the Patriots tied the game 7-7 after Greene’s 1-yard scoring run. … Greene’s fumble into his end zone ended in a safety when Sanchez deliberately kicked the ball out of the end zone, giving the Patriots a 16-7 lead. … The Patriots gained at least 350 yards for the 16th straight regular-season game, tying the St. Louis Rams of 1999-2000 for the most in NFL history.