EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Tom Brady hopped off the riser onto his left leg, his departure from the press conference as closely watched as any pass he threw Sunday. The Patriots were unimpressive for about 53 minutes against the Jets, but still completed the inevitable 22-17 victory with seven sterling minutes of toughness. Other than keeping pace with the Oakland Raiders -- read that twice -- for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, the most important thing to come out of this game was the landing that favored Brady's injured right knee and the slow, labored walk through the tunnel by Rob Gronkowski just before the game ended.
With five weeks to go in the regular season, the Patriots are very much in injury management mode now, in the business of determining when and to what extent to deploy their most critical players to maximize their chances in the playoffs.
"It's Week 11 -- I don't think anybody is feeling fresh as a daisy," Bill Belichick said. "It's a grind. Tom has great mental toughness."
An injury to Brady's right knee kept him out of two days of practice last week and it was obvious -- until the final scoring drive, really -- that he was not right Sunday. His passes repeatedly sailed high over receivers' heads, perhaps because he could not fully step into his throws. The Jets' pass rush didn't help Brady, as it overwhelmed the Patriots' offensive line, especially early in the game. Brady's 200th win -- tying Peyton Manning for the most by an NFL quarterback -- will not be one of his most memorable, but it might be among his grittiest. He had a hitch in his step all day, but on the last scoring drive, he was, well, Brady, going 6-for-9 for 83 yards and a touchdown, including a perfect 25-yard toss down the seam to Chris Hogan to set up the 8-yard touchdown pass to rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Hogan talked later about wanting to play harder after seeing that Brady is not 100 percent -- and even Brady, usually so careful not to let on about a physical ailment, did not dismiss it this time.
"I'm happy the week's over," Brady said later. "It was a long week. I think everybody is battling through different things. You just do the best you can do. It's a long season. Every week starts fresh again."
But Brady was asked if he ever considered not playing on Sunday.
There were times in the game when it was fair to wonder if 70 percent of Brady was better than 100 percent of Jimmy Garoppolo, although the last scoring drive probably answered that question. Trickier will be determining how much to push Gronkowski's return to the field. The second-most important player on the Patriots -- maybe the second-most important offensive player in the AFC -- already had meandered around the tunnel outside the press conference room, dressed in gray sweats, white athletic socks and black loafers, the picture of a player who probably shouldn't have played at all. Gronkowski wanted to go through a TSA gate so he could get on the team bus before the game ended, presumably to avoid the crush of the locker room and the peering eyes of reporters and fans. But security hadn't received the manifest of players from the Patriots yet, so Gronkowski was turned away, left to make his way down a ramp to watch the last few seconds of the game.
Gronkowski is still nursing a perforated lung he suffered against Seattle, which cost him the game last week against San Francisco. Keeping Gronkowski available for the playoffs has become something of an annual tradition for the Patriots, and while the back injury that forced him from this game after he landed with a thud while reaching for an overthrown pass might not be serious, it might be painful enough to give the Patriots pause about running him out for every December game. The Patriots have endured playoff runs without Gronkowski before and the results have not been pretty -- they lost in the conference championship games in 2012and '13 without him. It is noteworthy that on the play he was injured, Gronkowski had gotten behind two Jets defensive backs, a testament to what an extraordinary weapon he is for Brady and a reminder of what the Patriots would lose if he is hobbled.
The Patriots are seasoned enough to know that the ugliness of a victory is irrelevant, but this game will give them plenty to ruminate over beyond the report from the trainer's room. The offensive line struggled to protect Brady. The defense got little pressure, and for long stretches struggled to get a stop. Although the Pats' defense did force two turnovers, including a Chris Long strip-sack that ended the Jets' final drive to seal the victory. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a 39-yard field goal attempt, although he made three others. None of it is devastating, but all of it is concerning for a team with ambitions that stretch well beyond December.
"The last seven minutes of the game, we did a lot of good things," Belichick said. "We played our best football when it counted most."
Their best football was enough Sunday to beat a team whose season is already over. This next month will count the most, too, and the Patriots will have to manage it carefully. To know how they might approach it, it's worth listening to how Belichick responded when asked if he ever gave any thought to playing Garoppolo instead of Brady.
"Our thoughts are to win the game," he replied.
How many they can win like this in January might rest on their decisions right now.