Will these Patriots last to the finish line?

Mike Petraglia
November 27, 2016 - 10:37 pm

Malcolm Mitchell and James White celebrate the go-ahead touchdown Sunday. (Elsa/Getty Images)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The question is not whether Tom Brady is the toughest quarterback or if the Patriots are the most battled-tested team.

The real issue is whether they can realistically keep it up and last deep into the playoffs as the best team with the best shot at the Super Bowl. The short answer is unlikely, at least not the way they keep taking a pounding every week.

On Sunday, a battered Brady again re-wrote part of the NFL record book. He engineered his 50th game-winning drive to produce his 200th career win as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

Rob Gronkowski played through the pain of a chest injury two weeks earlier and lasted all of one quarter and two series before a back injury sent him to the locker room for the rest of the game.

The Patriots turned to Malcolm Mitchell, a rookie receiver out of Georgia, to make the two biggest catches of the game in a hostile environment, relied on a defense that forced two key turnovers when it hadn't forced a single one in four weeks and looked to its struggling kicker to convert three field goals after missing a simple 39-yarder at the end of the first half.

In spite of everything, the Patriots beat the three-win Jets Sunday, 22-17, at MetLife Stadium. But the way things are going, it's the Patriots who are going to need to take out a life insurance policy on the remainder of their season.

"It's tough, man. We know each other," said Malcolm Butler of the Jets. "We probably don't get along too well, long before I got here. They're a good team when it comes to playing us. They're a good team anyways. Coach (Bill Belichick) said it was going to be a dogfight and that's exactly what it was."

Butler, who suffered through an up-and-down day, proved his mental toughness, forcing a fumble in the second quarter that help turn the tide when the Patriots were down, 10-3, and getting outmuscled.

"I think it says a lot about our team, their resiliency, mental toughness, ability to focus and execute under pressure," Belichick said. "A lot of games in this league come down to the last series, a couple plays. You battle it out for 54, 55, 59 minutes and it comes down to one or two plays that are critical if they're executed well and if they're designed well, they have a chance to do it.

"We've had a lot of those come up and we've handled those pretty well. We had a lot of things we can improve on from this game. We'll talk about those and work on them as we get ready for Los Angeles this week."

Protecting the quarterback should be at the top of the list. It should alarm fans to see that the Patriots entered a game in which they knew the defensive line was the strength of the Jets, and they still managed to get through on Brady.

The two star players who were big question marks coming into the game with health issues didn't get any sympathy from the Jets.

The Jets pounded Brady all day and drove him to the turf on the first two snaps of the game. He took a hellacious hit and just came back for more. You would expect nothing less from Brady.

"Well, everybody's going to try and do different things, and I try to just show up and do my best, and I don't think everybody's feeling great this time of year so just do the best you can do and I'll try to do the same this week," Brady said with a firm tone.

Gronk was not as lucky. According to Pro Football Talk, the tight end was held out of the rest of the game for a back issue that is considered "not serious." He is not expected to miss an extended period of time due to the injury that cropped up suddenly in the first quarter. While a beast on many levels, Gronkowski is still human.

Dating back to his days in Arizona, he's had back problems that resulted in surgery that forced him to miss his junior season and was the sole reason he dropped to the second round, where the Patriots took a chance on him. The Patriots obviously don't want to take chances. But they also learned a lesson from last year when they tried to rest players down the stretch but forfeited home field advantage to the Broncos at the end.

Then there's Martellus Bennett, the other tight end who went to the turf early in the third quarter with his aching right ankle, an ankle that's been bothering him since Oct. 9 in Cleveland. He came out for a few plays to have the ankle's stability tested with bands before returning. Bennett was lying on the ground as the announcement came over the press box P.A. that Gronkowski would not return to the game.

Belichick is in a very tough spot. He's aware of the 2-4 finish to last season and what it cost the team. He also wants to manage his roster to get to the point where they're able to play the best players in the biggest games. He's managing the health of Chris Hogan (back), Julian Edelman (foot) and has already lost special teams captain Matthew Slater (foot). There were those who wondered about the wisdom of playing Gronkowski Sunday but Belichick feels if a player is cleared to play, he's cleared to play. He also needs these wins to hold off the Dolphins and get the top spot in the AFC.

The Patriots once again earned a "Victory Monday", getting the day off after the win plus their normal Tuesday off day. It's the second straight week they've gotten one and the second straight week they've needed it badly.

In a war of attrition, it's not just the toughest teams that advance deep into January. It's the ones who have the most able bodies at the end.

In 2011, they didn't have Rob Gronkowski at full strength in Super Bowl XLVI and they came up just two feet short of Gronkowski catching a Super Bowl-winning "Hail Mary" in the end zone. They lost Gronkowski in 2012 and lost to the Ravens in the AFC championship. They lost to the Broncos in 2013 because Aqib Talib suffered a hip injury in the AFC championship. They lost last year in Denver when they had no running game to turn to because Dion Lewis was out with a torn ACL and LeGarrette Blount was out with a bum hip.

There's a fine line in the NFL between playing physically and playing hurt. Good teams set the tempo and take the attack to the opponent early in games. When you're doing the hitting, the odds are more in your favor because you're the one in control of the attack, whether it's with a pounding running game behind a physical offensive line or a devastating pass rush.

The Patriots do have LeGarrette Blount but he ran just 11 times for 67 yards Sunday. They don't have a pass rush to speak of, getting to the immobile Ryan Fitzpatrick just once Sunday. The Patriots have proven they can take a pounding but they need to start dishing it out.

The Patriots earned high marks on so many fronts Sunday for improving to 9-2. They look like a team that is trying desperately to hold things together until the playoffs come in five weeks. Some trainer's tape will certainly come in handy over the next five weeks.