EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - No Vince Wilfork. No Tommy Kelly or Jerod Mayo. No Aqib Talib.
Eventually, those personnel losses are going to catch up with you, and surely the absence of those four defensive stalwarts played a huge role Sunday in the Patriots' 30-27 overtime loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
But there's a school of thought that even without the defense's best shot - and even though one of the kids entrusted with filling in for Wilfork in the middle ruined a great day by erring more out of ignorance than intent on a potential game-winning field goal attempt - a lion's share of this loss rested squarely upon the shoulders of Tom Brady and his offense.
The Patriots left the field at halftime leading 21-10, appearing in full command of the game. Brady had completed 11 of 18 passes and he finally had Rob Gronkowski back in his bag of clubs - and he used the big club often, throwing to him six times and completing four for 54 yards in the first 30 minutes.
And then it all fell apart. The Jets got to Brady three times (out of four sacks) in the second half, often terrorizing Nate Solder at left tackle. The running attack, already little more than a token weapon, was rendered irrelevant in the second half. And the Jets challenged everything thrown at Gronkowski thereafter, forcing an inaccurate Brady to wing the ball around at other receivers that were less inclined to catch the ball.
Gronkowski, seeing his first action of the season, finished with eight catches in 17 targets for 114 yards, but he didn't get into the end zone. His snaps were managed a little - one press box count had him playing 51 of 79 possible plays - and after a while, he had become such an anticipated target that the Jets were able to concentrate almost exclusively upon him - as Antonio Allen did when he stepped in front of a crossing pattern meant for the big tight end and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown that brought the Jets back within four points with just 33 seconds gone in the second half.
One agonizing statistic stood out above all others: The Patriots converted just 8 percent of their third-down opportunities, 1-for-12.
"We haven't been good on third down all year," said Brady. "Obviously, that's a big problem. You can't stay on the field and help our defense out.
"There are no excuses," he added. "We just didn't play well. I've got to do a better job out there. They're a good defense. They put pressure on you in all areas, and we didn't do anything offensively to slow them down at all."
The Jets struck first, taking the opening possession 80 yards in 12 plays to Geno Smith's 12-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley (eight catches, 97 yards). But the Patriots responded in turn, going 80 yards in 10 plays to tie the game on Brandon Bolden's 1-yard plunge with 5:58 left. A 30-yard pass over the middle from Brady to Gronkowski was the set-up play, and it seemed at the time to indicate that maybe all Brady needed to get this offensive unit over the hump was to have big No. 87 back in the lineup.
And when rookie cornerback Logan Ryan responded to a poor play in which he surrendered a 16-yard gain by the Jets' David Nelson by stepping in front of the next pass to him and returning it 79 yards for a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, it appeared that this was just going to be another one of those games where the Jets opened with bluster and then meekly rolled over and played dead.
Perish the thought, Jets' coach Rex Ryan said.
"We knew that it wasn't going to be easy, but we knew it wasn't over by any stretch of the imagination," Ryan said. "We knew that we had to play situation football. We did, and the guys just kept coming back.
"We did it our way," he added. "We never altered our plan as far as offensively. We stayed the course."
The Patriots countered a 37-yard field goal by Nick Folk with a 17-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley for the 11-point halftime bulge. But after Allen's interception turned into early points for the Jets in the second half, the Patriots' resolve seemed to wane.
Smith passed for 233 yards (17-33, one TD, one interception) and ran for another 32 on six carries, and he got a lot of time-chewing grinding out of running back Chris Ivory (34 carries, 104 yards) - yards that might not have been there if Wilfork, Kelly and Mayo had been there to stuff up his running lanes.
With a decided advantage in field position, Smith drove the Jets 52 yards on eight plays and scrambled for his own 8-yard touchdown with 4:33 left in the third quarter, taking a 24-21 lead. Folk added another 37-yarder for a 27-21 lead, and the Patriots sputtered at the Jets' 21 at the start of the fourth quarter and had to settle for a 39-yarder by Stephen Gostkowski with 12:58 to go.
The Jets had two lengthy possessions in the quarter but couldn't close it out. Brady had 2:10 left and 92 yards (or more likely, 60) to cover to at least get the game into overtime - and after a 19-yard pass to Julian Edelman got the ball to the Jets' 26, three straight incompletions forced Gostkowski to boot a 44-yarder and send the game to overtime.
Again, Brady faltered. He started the first possession with a 16-yard pass to Gronkowski, but three straight incompletions forced a punt. This time, the Jets executed a steady, determined drive that went from their 20 to the Patriots' 36 before Chandler Jones made what appeared to be a big stop, dropping Ivory for a loss of 2 yards.
On came Folk to attempt an unlikely 56-yard game-winner - but as the kick sailed wide left, Patriots' rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones was flagged for illegally pushing a teammate forward toward the kick - the first time since the rule was adopted that it has actually been called in a game.
Given the 15 yards for "unsportsmanlike conduct," Folk had no trouble booting a 42-yarder four plays later to end the game.
The blame could not be placed solely upon the untimely penalty, and Brady knew it.
"Everyone has to look at themselves and do a better job, because what we're doing right now isn't good enough," he said. "We have to do a better job all the way around. Everybody on offense needs to look at what we can do better and certainly make it a point of emphasis. (Converting third downs) has to be a strength for us going forward. You're not going to win many football games going 1-12."