EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New England Patriots are right where they always expect to be: in first place in the AFC East.
And, the New York Jets are looking up at them — as usual.
Tom Brady threw three touchdown passes, including two to Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots took control of the division with a convincing 37-16 victory Sunday night.
After the Jets got within a score at 23-16 early in the fourth quarter, Brady coolly led the Patriots (6-3) down the field on an 84-yard drive that was capped by an 8-yard touchdown catch by Deion Branch.
New England linebacker Rob Ninkovich then sealed the victory — which snapped a two-game skid — on the Jets’ next possession with a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the final quarter.
The game was a showdown for the top spot in the division, but it was no contest as the Patriots took over sole possession by snapping the Jets’ three-game winning streak and sweeping the regular-season series.
Buffalo entered the day tied with New England and New York, but the Bills were blown out by the Dallas Cowboys 44-7 earlier in the day.
It was also the first home loss for the Jets (5-4) after opening 4-0, but they can’t dwell on it because they play again at Denver on Thursday night.
Jets coach Rex Ryan insisted his team was greatly improved since a 30-21 loss at New England on Oct. 9 and declared it a must-win if New York wanted to get some home playoff games. Turns out, the Jets still have plenty of work to do if they expect to dethrone the Patriots.
New England was coming off consecutive losses to Pittsburgh and the Giants, but said there was no concern in its locker room. It certainly showed as the Patriots avoided their first three-game losing streak since 2002.
Brady finished 26 of 39 for 329 yards, the 40th time he reached the 300-yard mark in a regular-season game, breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Joe Montana for eighth on the NFL’s list. He also joined New Orleans’ Drew Brees as the only players to throw for 3,000 yards in their team’s first nine games. Brees also accomplished the feat this season.
Gronkowski finished with eight catches for 113 yards and the two scores, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked three field goals. Andre Carter had 4½ sacks as the Patriots’ defense — ranked last in the league coming in — harassed Mark Sanchez all night.
Sanchez was 20 of 39 for 306 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted twice and sacked five times.
The Jets appeared to get back in it when Plaxico Burress caught a 7-yard fade pass over Antwaun Molden in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter, making it 23-16.
But Brady went right back to work, leading the Patriots on a typically efficient drive, going 84 yards on 13 plays using a no-huddle offense that kept the Jets’ defense off balance. Mixing in some solid runs by Danny Woodhead, Brady coolly spread the ball around to his receivers before connecting with Branch with 8:04 remaining.
The score sent many in the crowd at MetLife Stadium headed for the exits.
Many of those who remained didn’t stick around much longer once Ninkovich returned an errant pass by Sanchez 12 yards to make it 37-16 with 7:45 left.
Three Jets bobbled a muffed punt by Joe McKnight to set up Gostkowski’s short field goal for a 16-9 lead. Isaiah Trufant had two shots at recovering the loose ball and Donald Strickland one — it squirted out of his hands — before Niko Koutouvides came up with it at the Jets 13 early in the third quarter.
Gronkowski appeared to catch his second TD pass of the night, but video replay showed he stepped out of bounds. Gostkowski then booted his third field goal, from 27 yards.
But Gronkowski ended up getting into the end zone again a few minutes later after Ninkovich returned a twice-tipped interception as Sanchez’s throw went off the hands of running back Shonn Greene, then was deflected by linebacker Jerod Mayo to Ninkovich.
The Jets got on the scoreboard when they got some rare pressure on Brady. Jamaal Westerman got to the Patriots quarterback in the end zone, and Brady threw the ball away left-handed and was called for intentional grounding and a safety.
New York took the free kick and moved 65 yards on seven plays, including a 21-yard run by LaDainian Tomlinson and a 22-yard grab by Patrick Turner, his first catch of the season. Sanchez ran in from the 2 on a quarterback draw for a 9-6 lead.
But the Jets quarterback made a mistake on the play right before his score, calling a timeout with 1:24 left in the half. Ryan was so angry, he told NBC at halftime that the timeout was the “stupidest play in NFL history.”
Adding to the frustration was New York not opting to try a pooch kickoff following a 15-yard penalty on New England’s Vince Wilfork, and Nick Branch kicked the ball through the end zone. Brady hit five passes on an 80-yard drive, with Gronkowski getting open over the middle for the 18-yard score with 9 seconds left in the half that made it 13-9.
The Jets were impressive on their opening drive, getting down to the Patriots 6 but came up empty when Folk was wide left on a 24-yard field goal attempt.
New England took advantage by taking a 3-0 lead on Gostkowski’s 50-yard field goal that squeezed over the crossbar. The Patriots appeared to be on their way to an impressive drive after a 12-yard catch by a wide-open Chad Ochocinco — his first reception in more than a month, the last time these teams played on Oct. 9 — and he could’ve had more but stepped out of bounds.