EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Two straight losses were too many for Tom Brady.
He and the New England Patriots weren’t used to struggling or hearing people wondering if they’re no longer the powerhouse they’ve been for years. Well, just like that, they’re back in a familiar spot: all alone at the top of the AFC East.
Brady threw three touchdown passes, including two to Rob Gronkowski, and the Patriots assumed sole possession of first place in the division with a convincing 37-16 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday night.
“It’s very sweet,” Brady said, “getting this win.”
The game was a showdown for the top spot in the division, but it turned out to be no contest as the Patriots (6-3) controlled the game most of the way and ended a rare two-game skid. It also prevented New England from its first three-game losing streak since 2002.
“Losing two straight, you have 14 days of just feeling (bad),” Brady said. “Every day of practice is harder. It’s hard to build on losses. It feels really good to win this one.”
It was also a crushing loss for the Jets (5-4), who had their three-game winning streak stopped, were swept in the regular-season series and are again looking up at their bitter rivals in the division.
“It looks doubtful right now,” an irritated Jets coach Rex Ryan said of his team’s chances of winning the AFC East. “What am I going to say? Maybe I should guarantee the fact that we’re out of it. The last time I did that, we made the playoffs.
“Yeah, we don’t have a chance.”
After the Jets got within a score at 23-16 early in the fourth quarter, Brady coolly led the Patriots 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 on the Jets’ next possession with a 12-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the final quarter.
“One game won’t win you much,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, “but it’s a good win and we’re certainly happy to have it.”
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.
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.
Brady and Belichick broke a tie with Miami’s Dan Marino and Don Shula as the winningest quarterback-coach duo since 1966 with 117 victories.
“The good teams keep getting better this time of year,” Brady said. “That’s what we need to do.”
Gronkowski finished with eight catches for 113 yards and the two scores, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked three field goals. Andre Carter had a team-record 4½ sacks as the Patriots’ defense — ranked last in the league coming in — harassed Mark Sanchez all night.
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.
“It just wasn’t our night,” Sanchez said. “We earned what we got tonight.”
Buffalo entered the day tied with New England and New York, but the Bills were blown out by the Dallas Cowboys 44-7. It was also the first home loss for the Jets after opening 4-0, but they can’t dwell on it because they play again at Denver on Thursday night.
Sanchez called an ill-advised timeout before halftime — Ryan told NBC it was “the stupidest play in NFL history” — that left enough time on the clock for Brady to lead a scoring drive that gave New England a 13-9 lead. It wasn’t all on Sanchez, though. Joe McKnight muffed a punt that led to a field goal by the Patriots, Nick Folk missed a 24-yard chip shot, the defense failed to make key stops in the second half and there were a handful of silly penalties.
“You’re not going to beat many teams when you make the mistakes that we made,” Ryan said. “We’ve been down this road before. I apologize to our fans.”
Sanchez was 20 of 39 for 306 yards and a touchdown, but was intercepted twice and sacked five times.
LaDainian Tomlinson passed Hall of Famer Barry Sanders for fifth place on the NFL’s career list for yards from scrimmage, but left the game with an injured left leg which was tightly wrapped in the locker room. He said he would have “some tests” on Monday.
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 calmly 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 heading 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.
“Bill challenged us last week,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. “We took his challenge and it showed tonight.”
NOTES: The Patriots lost CB Devin McCourty to an injured right shoulder midway through the second quarter after he collided with teammate Sterling Moore. … Jets WR Patrick Turner had his first catch of the season, but later left with what the team called “a kidney injury.” … Patriots WR Chad Ochocinco had two catches for 65 yards, his first receptions since the last time these teams played, on Oct. 9.