EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New England Patriots won their 11th straight game in typical fashion Saturday night: They pulled out yet another close game thanks to their defense.
Willie McGinest returned an interception for a score and the Patriots picked off Chad Pennington four other times, keying a 21-16 victory over the New York Jets. Tom Brady also threw two touchdown passes to David Givens, but the offense struggled most of the game, keeping the Jets in it until the end.
With Kansas City's loss earlier in the day, the Patriots (13-2) now have the best record in the NFL. If the Indianapolis Colts lose Sunday to Denver, the Patriots would clinch a first-round bye.
Even though the Patriots hold the head-to-head tiebreakers over the Chiefs and the Colts, Indianapolis still could steal the AFC home-field advantage from New England. The Colts must win their final two games, have the Patriots lose at home to Buffalo in their finale and have the Chiefs beat Chicago.
All three teams would finish at 13-3 and head-to-head tiebreakers would be thrown out because the Chiefs and Patriots did not meet. That would negate New England's edge on the Colts, who they beat 38-34.
"Yeah we've got 11, which is always good, but our goal was to finish undefeated," Givens said. "After the first couple of games, our run really speaks for itself. We're finding ways to win every week."
That is for sure. They won their seventh game by seven points or less, the mark of a good team that knows how to finish off victories.
The Jets (6-9) have not been as fortunate. They will finish the season with a losing record for the first time since 1996, when they went 1-15, and have dropped six games by seven points or less.
Pennington helped the Patriots win, throwing a career-high five interceptions -- including one in the end zone to Ty Law. Pennington had seven interceptions going into the game.
Fittingly, the Patriots ended the Jets' final rally with an interception. Eugene Wilson picked off Pennington to preserve the victory. Pennington finished 24-of-43 for 229 yards and two running scores. Afterward, several teammates gave him words of encouragement.
"When you know you lost the game for your team and your teammates pat you on the back and give you words of encouragement, it means a lot," Pennington said. "This was a night where the finger is pointed at me, but they're not pointing fingers."
The Patriots needed their defense to play well to even have a chance. New England had 13 first downs to 22 for the Jets, went three of 11 on third down and finished with fewer total yards (321-271).
Tedy Bruschi got the first pickoff on the second play of the game. It took eight seconds for the Patriots to convert the turnover into a score, when Brady threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Givens for a quick 7-0 lead.
The Jets answered when Pennington ran for a 1-yard TD to tie it up. With the Patriots struggling offensively, the defense stepped up again. McGinest returned an interception 15 yards for another score, the fifth time this season the Patriots returned a pickoff for a touchdown, tying a team record set in 2001.
New England has a total of six defensive touchdowns this season, which leads the NFL.
"Coach always tells us that turnovers need to mean points," McGinest said. "So that was a big one. So was Tedy's because we got points out of that one right away and we were up 7-0."
New England was not done making big plays. After Brady threw his second TD pass of the game to Givens to make it 21-10 in the third quarter, the Jets drove down the field. Pennington threw a pass for Santana Moss in the end zone from the Patriots' 21, but Law was there to intercept it.
The Jets would not go quietly. Pennington scored on a 10-yard run early in the fourth to make it 21-16. The 2-point conversion try failed when he threw incomplete to Kevin Lockett. The Patriots punted away, and the Jets had the ball with a chance to go ahead.
Rodney Harrison made sure that did not happen, intercepting a deep pass intended for Moss.
"Our DBs, the guys we've got, they've got to be right up on top of the league with interceptions," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They're playing really good back there in terms of getting their hands on the ball and reacting to it and intercepting it. The two by the linebackers were very big plays."
Brady finished 12-of-25 for 138 yards and two scores, while Antowain Smith had 18 carries for 121 yards.
New England ends the season at Buffalo, with yet another close victory behind them.
"This win shows great maturity on our part," Bruschi said. "We've got the veterans in here that can get the message through to the younger players."
- Moss had five catches for 52 yards, going over the 1,000 yard mark on the season for the first time in his career.
- Bruschi set a career high with his third interception of the season.
- Patriots LB Mike Vrabel had two sacks, giving him a career-high 9.5 this season, the highest sack total under Belichick.
The Associated Press News Service
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