— We figured that Devin McCourty owed some of his teammates dinner. A nice cut of prime rib for Mr. Prime Time Tom Brady maybe, for impeccable efficiency in answering his critics on that last-minute drive in regulation. A big Maine lobster, surely, for Steve Gostkowski for nailing a 43-yard field goal to send the game into overtime and then a 48-yarder to win it.
And absolutely a big kiss and anything he wants off the menu for Rob Ninkovich after Ninko sacked Mark Sanchez and crawled on his belly like an overcaffeinated reptile to recover the fumble Sunday and secure the Patriots' 29-26 overtime victory over the Jets.
We underestimated McCourty's debt of gratitude.
After fumbling away a kickoff with 2:01 remaining and putting Rex Ryan on the cusp of euphoria, McCourty felt like he owed his guys a whole lot more.
"My teammates saved my life today," McCourty said.
After each and every NFL game, there always is snap analysis and widespread proclamations … Neither team deserved to win this game … For the Patriots, this was the definition of winning ugly … The AFC East? We haven't seen this many Pretenders since Chrissie Hynde first sang "Brass in Pocket" in 1979 … The Patriots might have won, but that defense blew yet another fourth-quarter lead … Sanchez may have been terrific in the second half, 16-for-20, but he still can't finish the job …
There's some truth in all that stuff, but the NFL is also a week-to-week league, and sometimes you've just got to focus in tight on a few plays and the range of human emotion. From that standpoint, it was a helluva (albeit flawed) regular-season show.
Nobody embodied that more than McCourty. He started the day realizing he'd be moved from cornerback to safety after both Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung were deactivated because of injuries. After Sanchez led the Jets on an opening 11-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, McCourty answered with the second-longest kickoff return in Patriots history.
The last time he returned a kick for a touchdown?
"In college," McCourty said.
Connecticut fans may remember. It was UConn's first home game after Jasper Howard's murder in 2009, one that ended with Howard's good friend, Tim Brown, scoring the winning touchdown for Rutgers, but beginning with McCourty's 98-yard return.
This one went 104 yards, the longest since Ellis Hobbs' 108-yard return against the Jets in 2007.
"Nobody touched me," McCourty said. "It was the kickoff a special teams coach would love to see. I just ran one way and Wendy [Ryan Wendell] and Daniel [Fells] did a great job blocking. I just made one cut. Everybody got blocked except the kicker. Once you get to the kicker it's your responsibility."
And while Nick Folk did a terrific job kicking field goals, Folk wasn't a hero tackling. McCourty blew him away.
"I just made a move and used my speed to get into the end zone," McCourty said.
"We just overpursued," the Jets' Antonio Allen said. "Special teams breakdown."
McCourty's glory and the Patriots' 23-13 lead didn't last. After Folk kicked his third of four field goals, McCourty fielded his kickoff at the goal line and got to the 15 when former Patriot Lex Hilliard knocked the ball loose. Allen fell on it at the 18.
"A bad mistake," McCourty said. "My goal is to play mistake free in the fourth quarter and that was a big one."
"You still have to finish," said Hilliard, waived by the Patriots in September and signed by the Jets Oct. 2. "They aren't going to just lay over on their back and let you win the game."
"I knew in my heart we had seven, right there," Jets linebacker Calvin Pace said. "But it just didn't happen for us."
The Jets offense did nothing with the fumble, but Folk hit a 43-yard field goal to put New York ahead, 26-23. That's when Brady, catching some rare criticism after the loss in Seattle and painted as being on the back nine of his career, answered by hitting 4 of 5 passes for 54 yards to set up Gostkowski's tying 43-yard field goal as time expired.
What did Brady think of the criticism?
"I haven't turned the TV on in a week," Brady said. "So I don't know what anyone said."
And what did Gostkowski think of his heroics?
He wasn't around to answer questions. Was he still chafed at the media after missing the potential winning field goal in the final seconds against Arizona?
Don't know. But we do know what McCourty wanted to say to Gostkowski.
"Thank you," McCourty said. "Thank you."
Bill Belichick played McCourty at safety in the past and with the injuries, he turned to him Sunday. He said McCourty did a "pretty solid job," that the deep part of the field was a little more secure than it had been.
"I wanted my teammates to count on me switching positions," McCourty said. "We have a lot of young guys back there, different guys because of injuries."
"We loved having Devin on our team," said Rob Gronkowski, who caught two touchdown passes. "He's a great leader and works hard every week."
It was a goofy game. Rather than allow huge Vince Wilfork to fall on a Shonn Greene fumble, Sanchez awkwardly kicked the ball out of the end zone for a safety. Antonio Cromartie looked like Eduardo Nunez of the Yankees in dropping a sure interception, and Jason Hill dropped a surer pass before Folk tied the game at 23.
Still, it was the Patriots who had to rally in the final 97 seconds, first on offense and then on defense.
"We just wanted to finish defensively," McCourty said, "and today we did. Ninko's always trying to prove he can do something else. He makes big plays."
That he did. After Gostkowski's 48-yard field goal in overtime, the Jets moved the ball to their 40. On second-and-10, Sanchez dropped back and Jermaine Cunningham got a meaty hand on the Jet quarterback's ankle.
"Jermaine did a great job of getting inside the guard," Ninko said. "He did a good job of shortening the corner for me on an edge rush. I just went for the ball, hit it, hit everything. I saw the ball pop out, and was able to fall on it. I was crawling pretty fast. I was waiting for a big offensive lineman to jump on my back."
Ninkovich is another who has shown versatility, playing linebacker and at the edge of the defensive line. That versatility would leave him with the game ball in his hand.
"This one," he said, "will be on the mantel."
McCourty, meanwhile, was busy pulling on his T-shirt to go home. Fittingly, it was one of Popeye that read, "Tough guy."
"We were tough today," he said. "We showed a lot of character to finish it off."