EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — There were no sighs of relief, no jumps for joy when the New York Jets found out they wouldn’t have to worry about Rob Gronkowski this week.
Sure, the New England Patriots lost perhaps the league’s top playmaking tight end for a few weeks with a broken forearm. But Rex Ryan’s team knew better than to celebrate.
“I don’t know,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “They have five tight ends on their roster, so I don’t know if they’ll put another guy in that role. I’m not sure how they’ll do it.”
If Ryan has learned anything in his nearly four seasons as coach of the Jets, it’s that Bill Belichick usually finds a way to win no matter who’s out there — or isn’t — on the field for the Patriots. Ryan also knows New England can change the personnel, but as long as it’s still Tom Brady’s bunch, it’ll be a tough task.
“When you look at him,” Ryan said, “you can almost say he’s a machine back there.”
And Ryan is right about the Patriots’ glut of tight ends. Aaron Hernandez could return for the game against the Jets (4-6) Thursday night at MetLife Stadium after missing the last three with a sprained right ankle, and New England also has Daniel Fells, Visanthe Shiancoe and Michael Hoomanawanui at the position.
“New England is so multiple, they give you sometimes it could be four wides, five wides, could be a bunch of tight ends and all that,” Ryan said. “So, we’ll see as the game goes how it affects them.”
Belichick was typically tight-lipped when asked if the loss of Gronkowski will change the offense for the Patriots (7-3).
“Well, we’ll see,” he said. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Sounds as though Belichick, one win from becoming the eighth NFL coach with 200 victories, has something up his hoodie. Just as he always does. Gronkowski or no Gronkowski, the Patriots still have Brady, of course, and that’s enough for anyone in New England to feel confident.
Brady was asked earlier this week if Gronkowski seemed to be in a decent mood when the two spoke.
“I haven’t been thinking about his spirits,” Brady said. “I’ve been thinking about the Jets.”
A focused and determined Brady is certainly cause for concern for the Jets.
“He’s going to be Brady,” safety LaRon Landry said. “He’s going to complete passes and he’s going to be great out there. We are going against a tough quarterback.”
Talk about an understatement. Brady needs one touchdown pass to extend his streak with at least one to 43 straight games — third-longest in league history behind Drew Brees (53 and counting) and Johnny Unitas (47). He has 51 career 300-yard passing games in the regular season, and one more would put him into tie for fifth place with Kurt Warner. Brady also needs 86 yards passing to move past Dan Fouts (43,040) for 10th place on NFL’s career list.
“The thing about him is he’s a machine, yet he’s passionate and a fiery leader and all that type of stuff, so you wish he was just a machine,” Ryan said. “His competitive side elevates his team as well. That’s what you get in those once-in-a-generation type quarterbacks, that he’s just a special guy.”
The Jets know all about it, too. Brady is 4-0 with 10 TDs and one interception in his last four regular-season games against them. He’s 17-5 overall when playing New York, including New England’s playoff loss in the 2010 postseason.
The Patriots have also been dominant in the second halves of seasons since 2010, going a combined 18-0 so far — including 8-0 in both 2010 and ’11, and 2-0 this season. That doesn’t bode well for a Jets team trying to get back into the playoff hunt after a miserable start.
“This is a very important game for our season, so I’m not overly concerned with their season,” Brady said. “I think about what our season is all about and what we need to do. This is a very good team. It’s always very challenging to play them, especially on the road. It’s a short week and there’s a lot to prepare for, so it will really test our mental toughness and see what we’re all about.”
Well, the entire league already knows that the Patriots’ top-ranked offense is efficient and explosive, as proven by their 59-24 walloping of Indianapolis on Sunday. Brady leads a steady passing game, and a four-man rotation of Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden gives New England a productive and unpredictable rushing attack.
The Jets handled Brady and the Patriots’ offense for much of the game the last time the teams played last month in a 29-26 overtime victory by New England that New York thought was theirs for the taking.
“When it mattered most, he delivered and they got the victory,” Ryan said. “We know each other so well. We know enough of Tom Brady to know if he knows exactly what you’re in, you’re in trouble.”
That game ended when Rob Ninkovich forced and recovered a fumble by Mark Sanchez, moments after Stephen Gostkowski kicked a go-ahead field goal in overtime. It started a string of three straight losses for the Jets, who appeared on the verge of seeing their season slip away until a solid performance last week in St. Louis.
Sanchez was efficient and mistake-free for the first time in weeks, giving the Jets plenty of hope heading into this matchup with the Patriots.
“They played really well against St. Louis if you watched that game,” Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said. “They’re a physical team. They got to the quarterback. They forced some negative plays for them and really did some good things. So, they got some momentum coming off that game and we’ve just got to make sure that we keep our momentum going.”
Both teams are cramming to prepare for their second game in five days, a short work week for such a big game.
For the Jets, a win would get them within a game of .500 and avoid a sweep by the Patriots for the second straight season. For New England, it would put them in control of the division at 4-0 with just two games against Miami left and send New York scrambling to stay in the wild-card hunt.
“You look at this as a chance to separate yourself from the rest of the pack,” Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said. “We handled the Bills and now this is a big game for us to kind of distance ourselves.”