EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With the score tied at 10 at halftime Sunday, New England Patriots fans had a question: Where was the offense?
Many wanted New England to throw the ball more to Rob Gronkowski. The Pats, though, had a simple answer: Give the ball to rookie running back Sony Michel. Returning to the basics helped give New England an important 27-13 victory over the rival New York Jets.
The Pats recorded 35 rushes an 31 passes. Gronkowski had his first touchdown since the opening game against Houston, finishing with three catches for 56 yards.
The only thing that stopped Michel in the second half was a back injury that kept him off the field for a series. Michel rushed for 133 yards -- 87 in the second half -- and a touchdown. The first-round pick, who missed three games this year with a leg injury, returned to action in the loss at Tennessee before their bye week. He had only 11 carries for 31 yards and didn't look like himself.
Many thought the Pats should not take a running back in the first round because of what happened to Laurence Maroney more than 10 years ago. He lasted only four seasons in New England and was considered a huge disappointment. The Pats, though, saw a toughness in Michel and recognized that he was likely the best player available late in the first round.
"It all starts up front. If you can run the ball -- you can set up play action,'' said center David Andrews, who reminded eager reporters that run blocking is always more fun than pass blocking. "Sony is a great player and when he is out there, you feel like you have a chance to make big plays."
With Tom Brady at quarterback, the passing can be sufficient to win. The Jets, however, were effective against Gronkowski so Bill Belichick does what he does best -- find an opponents weakness and exploit it. On the Pats opening drive of the third quarter, Michel had 48 yards rushing -- including a 31-yard jaunt to open the half.
Michel's influence was obvious at the end of the drive. After he was injured at the Jets 11, Cordarrelle Patterson ran for a first down on fourth-and-1. However, the Pats went away from the run game and threw three straight incompletions. They were forced to settle for a field goal and led 13-10. On the ensuing possession, the Jets tied the score at 13.
Michel missed the next series and the Pats went on a four-play 75-yard scoring drive with Julian Edelman (21-yard touchdown catch), Chris Hogan and James White each having a big play. Belichick said that the play-action passes to Edelman and Hogan were each set up by the running game.
"It was a big drive. It was a big answer," Bill Belichick said. "The play-action passes fed off the run."
Added Brady: "They're so dependable and consistent. They're just great players. When we needed them to make those plays, it was a throw to Chris (Hogan), hand off to James (White), hand off and then throw to Jules (Julian Edelman). Jules made a great catch and run. When they're in there and they're involved, good things happen for our offense. Hopefully, we just can keep it going."
The defense forced a Jets punt and the Pats needed a game clinching drive. Enter Michel. On the first play of the drive, Michel had a 33-yard run. After a big third-and-10 completion to Josh Gordon for 17 yards, the Pats went back to Michel, who had another 5-yard run and a 1-yard run touchdown run.
Michel's right knee was down at the half yard line after the play was originally called a touchdown. Michel ran again for a touchdown. This time there was no doubt that Michel scored and the Pats led 27-13.
Michel noted that the coaches challenged the offense to be more consistent in the running game. Michel, a true Patriots player, gave credit to his offensive line.
"They should be up here," said Michel at the podium after the game.
The Pats are 8-3. Some fans might lament the lack of a pass rush or want more bigs plays. The Pats, though, entered MetLife Stadium needing a division win and they earned it.
It wasn't always pretty, particularly in the first half.
Good teams like the Pats find new ways to win and respond to adversity. The Pats did both Sunday.