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New England Patriots focus on finishing kick

By The Sports Xchange

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) walks into the end zone after scoring on a one-yard touchdown in the third quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on December 24, 2016. The Patriots defeated the Jets 41-3. Photo by Matthew Healey/ UPI
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) scrambles for a pass in the first quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on December 24, 2016. Photo by Matthew Healey/ UPI
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates with tight end Martellus Bennett (88) after the two connected on a five-yard touchdown in the first quarter against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts on December 24, 2016. Photo by Matthew Healey/ UPI
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It didn't take the New England Patriots long to finish off the New York Jets on the way to the 41-3 victory on Christmas Eve at Gillette Stadium.
Malcolm Butler's first-quarter interception of an overmatched Bryce Petty set up a short field for Tom Brady and Co. to march to a Martellus Bennett touchdown and a 10-0 lead that set the tone for the blowout.
New England (13-2) finished with four takeaways -- including three for Butler who had two picks and a fumble recovery -- as the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense held an opponent without a touchdown for the second straight week.
The Patriots won their sixth straight game as they roll toward the postseason, having already secured a first-round playoff bye and the clear favorite to head to another Super Bowl.
"I think it went back to the Denver game," Brady said of his team's mentality down the stretch. "We won that game and we got on an airplane and we said, 'Look, we're finishing strong. We're putting the pedal to the metal.' Last year we didn't finish strong and we didn't like the way that things ended.
"We need to keep playing well down the stretch. Different guys are contributing and all phases of the game are contributing. It's been a lot of fun. Thirteen wins is pretty good. We've got to try to finish strong though next week."
A year ago, the Patriots lost three of their final five games -- including dropping division battles with the Jets and Dolphins -- that had the team uncharacteristically limping into January action. There was a clear focus on that not happening in Saturday's home finale again the Jets (4-10) and will be once again in Sunday's season finale in Miami.
"I think everyone wants to talk about home-field advantage and playoffs and stuff like that. We just know the most important thing as a team is playing good football, and that's going out, like I said during the week, executing during practice, playing and practicing at a high level," Devin McCourty said. "We see it work. We go out there and have a good week of practice and then we come out here and play well so I think all across the board as a team, we know that, we understand it. It's up to the older guys and the leaders to make sure we stick to it, especially on a week like that where it's Christmas and the holidays, and we did that. It showed (against the Jets)."
What showed was a Patriots team that's making plays in all areas and playing its best football heading into the playoffs. That's a scary proposition for the opposition, but exactly what coach Bill Belichick wanted to see.
"We played good, complementary football. We got contributions from all three phases -- offense, defense, special teams. We had some good field position on the turnovers and our offense was able to take advantage of that. Just a real solid week and solid performance," Belichick said of the work against New York, before adding that the focus that he's looking for isn't outside the norm. "We try to do that every week, believe it or not. We try to be urgent. We try to win every week. We try to do that every single week."
PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus -- When a healthy Tom Brady is contently watching from the sidelines late in the third quarter, it probably tells you all you need to know about the game that unfolded. A week after a slow start against Denver, Brady came out with impressive efficiency against the Jets, completing six of his first eight throws to lead New England to a 10-0 first-quarter lead on the way to the 41-3 blowout. Brady finished the day -- less than three quarters of action -- completing 17 of 27 passes for 214 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 124.6 rating. He spread the ball around to nine different targets, led by Julian Edelman's five catches for 89 yards. Tight ends Martellus Bennett and Matt Lengel and running back James White hauled in the three touchdowns. Brady led a unit that converted 11 of 18 (61-percent) of its third downs and scored on five of seven first-half possessions. New England's line allowed some early pressure but Brady again showed the mobility to deal with the disruption, including a scrambling, retreating, 28-yard completion to Edelman that was Aaron Rodgers-like. It wasn't perfect, but it was a more-than-solid day for Brady and the passing attack.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- Save for a pair of rushing touchdowns by LeGarrette Blount, who increased his team-record total to 17 ground scores on the year, it wasn't an overly efficient day for the ground game. New England piled up 40 carries for 114 yards for just a 2.9-yard average. The attempts were again split between Blount and Dion Lewis. The latter led the way with 52 yards on his 16 attempts (3.3 avg.), while the former had 20 carries for 50 yards (2.5 avg.) and his two scores. New York's big defensive front gave the New England offensive line all it could handle in the trenches and Lewis, in particular, had to work hard to even get back to the line or fight out short gains at times. Still, there were enough rushing attempts to balance out the offense on the way to the blowout success.
PASS DEFENSE: A -- Jets young starter Bryce Petty dropped back to throw a pass five times before leaving to a shoulder injury, leading to three incompletions, two sacks and an impressive Malcolm Butler interception. Hard to ask for a better start from a pass defense. Things didn't improve much more for New York when veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick came on, as the Patriots held the Jets to just eight completions on 24 pass attempts as a team, tallied three interceptions and held the visitors to just one third-down conversion on 11 chances. Butler had two interceptions while Eric Rowe added another on blanket coverage of Brandon Marshall down the field. It was a dominant performance from the pass defense from front to back and everything in between.
RUSH DEFENSE: C -- New England came into the battle with the Jets with the NFL's No. 4 rush defense, rising up the rankings with impressive performances for the last two months. But the unit got gashed a bit in the first half by Bilal Powell and Khiry Robinson. Powell led the way with his usual relentless, physical style in his 15 attempts for a solid 60 yards, including a 12-yard long in which he ran over Pro Bowl safety Devin McCourty. The Jets finished with 29 rushes for 111 yards (3.8 avg.), the most rushing attempts the Patriots have allowed since Week 6 and most rushing yards allowed since Nov. 20 in San Francisco. Playing without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower (knee), rookie sixth-round linebacker Elandon Roberts stepped in with a team-high 11 tackles. On a day when so much went so well for New England, the run defense was a relative disappointment.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit both his short field goals attempts -- 29 and 22 yards -- to continue to build positive momentum after a slump earlier this year that saw the 2015 All-Pro miss four field goals and three extra points. Gostkowski has now made 11 straight field goals and been perfect for more than a month. Punter Ryan Allen was solid with a 45-yard net average on his four boots, including one inside the 20. The coverage units were extremely impressive in holding New York's Nick Marshall to a 3.4-yard average on punt returns and just 14.3-yard average on kickoffs, with New England executing its high-and-short approach four different times with excellent success on the latter. The Patriots didn't get much out of its own return game, although one silver lining was Cyrus Jones getting a chance to cleanly handle and return a punt in the second half, something that's been a season-long struggle for the top pick. Overall, it was a solid but far from spectacular day in the third phase.
COACHING: B-plus -- With the Patriots a three-score favorite coming in on the heels of consecutive impressive wins over the Ravens and in Denver, a letdown was a consideration. That clearly never came to fruition and Bill Belichick and his staff deserve some credit for that in the Christmas Eve success. Josh McDaniels' game plan had the Patriots once again balancing out I-formation runs -- some again with the passing back Lewis as the tailback -- with an efficient passing game. The balance led to key big plays through the air as well. Defensively, Matt Patricia mixed up this coverages and scheme rushes well, including early pressures on the young passer Petty. Personnel rotations on all three levels were once again a part of Patricia's day, including working around the absence of Pro Bowler Hightower at linebacker. The Patriots were motivated, efficient and mostly error-free team in all three phases. The credit for that goes to the players, but also the coaches that put them in position to succeed on a holiday work week.

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