- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - Bill Belichick sounded like a coach whose team was just eliminated from playoff contention rather than one that clinched a first-round bye.

Tom Brady was sacked four times and had a poorer passer rating than Geno Smith. New England’s offense gained just 52 yards in the first half. It took a late surge to eke out a one-point win over one of the NFL’s worst teams.

“We just didn’t execute very well,” Belichick said Monday, “in any part of the game.”

Still, the Patriots got out of MetLife Stadium with a 17-16 win Sunday over their rival New York Jets, a team with a 3-12 record and a coach, Rex Ryan, whose continued employment is very much in doubt.

“We don’t play Division I football and have a couple Division III teams on the schedule. They just don’t exist. Every week is tough,” Belichick said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the Jets, but we have and we’ll need to play a lot better than we played.”

Their next chance comes Sunday in the regular-season finale at home against Buffalo, a team that almost never beats the Patriots.

New England has won 21 of the last 22 meetings with the only loss coming on a field goal on the final play of a game in 2011. It won the last 13 meetings in Foxborough.

This season, the Bills have allowed the fourth fewest yards and fifth fewest points in the NFL, but lost to lowly Oakland 26-24 on Sunday, their fourth setback in seven games.

One win in that stretch was a 38-3 rout of the Jets.

The Bills defense presents “a different challenge (than the Jets) in terms of style and what we’re going to see in terms of the spacing of the front and the type of pressures,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday, “but, nonetheless, it’s going to be a huge challenge. This is one of the best defenses we play all year.”

That can’t be good news if the Patriots offense is as shaky as it was against the Jets.

“Fifty yards of offense in the first half, that’s not going to win many games,” Belichick said. “We were lucky to even be in the game.

Still, the Patriots became the first team with five consecutive first-round byes since the current playoff format began in 1990.

The Patriots struggled without Julian Edelman, Brady’s top receiver; Dan Connolly, a key to the offensive line, and LeGarrette Blount, their most powerful running back. All missed the game with injuries.

With Josh Kline starting for Connolly at left guard, Brady was under pressure.

In the first quarter alone, he was sacked three times for 29 yards.

“There was more than one issue (Sunday) in terms of protecting the quarterback,” McDaniels said. “We had issues in the front. We had issues at tight end. We had issues at running back.

“A lot of things go into it, some of which is communication based, some of which is physical, some of which is just technique, fundamentals and execution. There are a lot of things that we can certainly do better.”

The Patriots did well enough after Brady threw an interception midway through the fourth quarter just after the Jets cut the lead to 17-16 on Nick Folk’s third field goal.

The Jets had the ball at the Patriots 24-yard line, well within range for a go-ahead field goal. But New York chose to pass and Smith was sacked by Dont’a Hightower for a 10-yard loss.

That set up a 52-yard kick. Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork tipped it and it fell short.

Then the Patriots ran out the final 5:16.

New York had no timeouts when, on third-and-1, Brandon Bolden rushed 17 yards along the right side to the Jets 8 on the second play after the two-minute warning. He stayed inbounds and the Jets couldn’t stop the clock.

“We kind of had an idea that they were going to try to take away (the middle) because we had run the quarterback sneak a few times for a first down,” Bolden said. “We knew we had to go outside with the ball. We got out there and there was so much room.”

But he was worried that Rob Gronkowski might get called for holding if he made a block.

“So I yelled to Gronk, ‘Let him go,’ and Gronk let him go,” Bolden said. “So I got around the edge and we got the first down.”

And one big offensive play on a day when the Patriots didn’t make many.

___

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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