EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Tom Brady and the Patriots will be resting at home for the start of the playoffs.
The only question left is whether the AFC’s road to the Super Bowl will run through New England.
Jonas Gray scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard run early in the fourth quarter after New England intercepted Geno Smith, and the Patriots clinched a bye with a 17-16 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday.
New England has earned a bye in five straight seasons, the longest streak since the current playoff format began in 1990.
“We made plenty of good (plays) in the fourth quarter to come from behind, so that was great,” Brady said. “I’m glad it came out the way it did — makes for a better Christmas. It’s always tough to get a win here.”
Brady threw a 3-yard TD pass to Rob Gronkowski for the Patriots (12-3), who could earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if Denver loses to Cincinnati on Monday night. New England became the first team to earn first-round byes in five straight seasons.
With the Jets (3-12) leading 13-10 late in the third quarter, Smith’s pass for Jace Amaro hung in the air for an easy interception by Jamie Collins — which led to Gray’s score minutes later.
“Yeah, he underthrew it,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said. “Poor throw.”
Nick Folk had a 52-yard field goal attempt that could have given New York a lead with just over 5 minutes left. But Vince Wilfork partially blocked it.
“I penetrated a little bit and got a piece of it,” Wilfork said.
Brady and the Patriots were then able to run out the clock for the win, sealed by Brandon Bolden’s 17-yard run on third down with just under 2 minutes left.
“It’s unfortunate,” Ryan said. “I really thought it was going to be our day.”
Brady finished 23 of 35 for 182 yards and was sacked four times, a modest showing while playing without wide receiver Julian Edelman (concussion) and running back LeGarrette Blount (shoulder).
Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis had a mostly quiet return to the Meadowlands, playing against his former team for the first time since signing with New England — except for the fans booing him when he made a tackle.
The game could have marked the final home appearance by Ryan, whose future with the team is uncertain in his sixth season.
“I wasn’t thinking about anything,” Ryan said, “other than I was just a little upset over this game.”
New York will miss the postseason for the fourth straight year, and Ryan and general manager John Idzik have come under heavy criticism by fans who have urged owner Woody Johnson to make changes. Several waved yellow “penalty towels” at MetLife Stadium with the words “Fire Idzik!” printed in green. This latest loss certainly didn’t make the Jets’ faithful — or Ryan and Idzik — feel any better.
“It’s tough because through this all, he’s been the rock,” right guard Willie Colon said of Ryan. “I honestly want to win for him, more than anybody.”
Gray squeaked into the end zone up the middle — a video review stood after Ryan insisted on the sideline that the running back’s knee might have been down — to give the Patriots a 17-13 lead with 13:51 remaining.
“It was about making the critical plays,” Brady said, “and we found a way to do it.”
Marcus Williams’ first NFL interception put the Jets in position to go ahead when Brady’s pass tipped off Brandon LaFell and into his hands. But Dont’a Hightower sacked Smith on third-and-4 for a 10-yard loss, setting up Folk’s long attempt with 5:26 remaining.
Jets center Nick Mangold injured his left ankle in the second quarter and was carted off the field. He said he had X-rays, which revealed no break, but was going for additional tests Monday. New York also played without wide receiver Percy Harvin in the second half after he injured a rib.
NOTES: The win was the Patriots’ 250th in 368 total games under Robert Kraft, tying him with Chicago’s George Halas for the fastest an owner has reached the milestone. … Bill Belichick broke a tie with Curly Lambeau for fourth place in overall NFL victories with his 230th. … Smith finished 17 of 27 for 210 yards. … Jets LB David Harris finished with 10 total tackles, giving him 1,008 for his career. … Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson had a half-sack in his return after missing three games with turf toe.