FOXBOROUGH (AP) — The last time the Jets played the Patriots, Mark Sanchez threw a career-high three touchdown passes.
Then, things got worse for New England’s pass defense.
Sanchez’s strong performance came in the second game of the season, a 28-14 win by New York, and New England’s defense has struggled, statistically at least, ever since.
But on Monday night, the Patriots get another crack at slowing down their co-leader in the AFC East.
“The important part is winning,” nose tackle Vince Wilfork said Thursday. “We’re 9-2. There’s a lot of teams that have got pretty good defenses out there that the record doesn’t show. So I don’t care about stats. The main stat, for me, is winning.”
For those who do care about statistics, though, the Patriots numbers aren’t impressive.
They’ve given up the most yards passing in the NFL, 288.5 per game, and the second-most overall, 399.1. But the defense, with three rookie starters, has been opportunistic with an AFC-high 15 interceptions, led by rookie first-round draft pick Devin McCourty with five.
“I think we’ve played together,” McCourty said, “and a lot of our young guys have just gained a lot of experience since the last time we played (the Jets).”
Opponents have piled up a lot of yards after falling behind and throwing in an effort to come back.
The Patriots allowed Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 284 yards after they took a 23-3 lead in the final minute of the third quarter on their way to a 39-26 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
They also stopped drives with big plays. Peyton Manning was leading the Indianapolis Colts back from a 31-14 deficit in the fourth quarter, but James Sanders’ interception at the Patriots 6-yard line with 31 seconds left preserved a 31-28 win in which Manning threw for 396 yards, but four interceptions.
“It’s kind of misleading because you get a big lead on people and you’re willing to sacrifice yards,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “They’re all about wins and right now, they look pretty good to me. They force a lot of turnovers. The young secondary is coming together a little bit. I think the kid from Rutgers (Devin McCourty) is doing a really great job for them. And they have (Brandon) Meriweather back there, who has a lot of range and instincts and everything else. They have a lot of good players on their defense.”
They also have some who have struggled. Second-year cornerback Darius Butler lost his starting job after a bad game against the Jets, in which he committed two pass-interference penalties.
He was replaced by Kyle Arrington, who was waived by Philadelphia and Tampa Bay before New England added him to the practice squad last year. He played eight games with the Patriots in 2009, almost exclusively on special teams.
“This is my first year as an every-down corner,” said Arrington, originally signed by the Eagles in 2008 as a free agent out of Hofstra. “It’s had its ups and it’s had its downs, but it’s definitely a learning experience.”
Since the opener of this season series, the Jets have seen the return of wide receiver Santonio Holmes. The former Steeler was suspended by the league for the first four games. But he’s scored four touchdowns in the past three games, including two game-winners in the final minute.
On Monday night, he could be covered by McCourty, which Holmes said he “wouldn’t do it if I was them,” because of his past success against young defensive backs. But the Patriots’ cornerback with the most experience, Jonathan Wilhite, is in only his third pro season.
The two lowest passing totals against the Patriots came in the only games they lost. Sanchez threw for 220 yards and Colt McCoy had 174 yards passing in Cleveland’s 34-14 win.
Since the loss to the Browns, the Patriots have allowed an average of 356 yards passing in three games … but won every one of them.
“People can say what they want to say about this team, about this defense,” Wilfork said. “The only thing we’re trying to do is win, point blank. So if that calls for us to be the 32nd defense in the league, it is what it is.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick put it more simply:
“We play to win the games. That’s what our goal is.”
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