FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots defense picked the perfect time to deliver its best effort of the season.

A unit struggling mightily against the pass this year dominated quarterback Mark Sanchez and his New York Jets offense last Sunday, a pinpoint performance that the defense had been waiting patiently for.

And to think, they did it without the invaluable services of linebacker Jerod Mayo, a defensive captain who has led the team in tackles three years running, but is suffering from a sprained knee.

“Not having a guy like Mayo on the field is obviously going to hurt your defense,” linebacker Rob Ninkovich said Thursday. “But I think that we did a good job of everyone stepping up and knowing that without him out there, everybody has to step up.

“I think that we did well as a defense.”

And now, for the next act. New England (4-1) plays host to Dallas (2-2) on Sunday. And the challenge now is proving this unit has yet to peak.

“They’re a great team and obviously they have a lot of weapons offensively that you have to account for,” Ninkovich said of Dallas, fresh off a bye. “So, I think as a defense, you’ve just got to be aware of where everybody’s at and make sure that you know that they have some dangerous guys on offense.

“Try and do your best as a defense to take away those players.”

New England had little trouble eliminating the Jets’ primary offensive threats. A unit ranked last in the league in passing defense — permitting 326.6 yards per game — limited New York to 255 yards of total offense, merely 158 from the arm of Sanchez. New York receivers Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason were held to a combined eight catches. The scuffling Jets then traded Mason to Houston.

“That’s the most simple way I can put it. Just doing your job and just limiting the plays after a catch, getting the tackles,” safety Patrick Chung said. “Little things like that make a big difference.”

It certainly allows the defense to exit the field quicker, something they did time and again Sunday. New York was a paltry 3-for-11 on third-down conversions, including seven drives that went three-and-out.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is aware of the performance.

“You can tell they’re well coached. They play the right technique. They played really good ball last week,” he said. “When you watch them, they’ve got a couple of big guys up front that can create a problem. You just have to be ready.

“They do a lot of different stuff.”

Having already faced a handful of top-tier, talented receivers, New England is well prepared for the tall, physical versions Dallas presents. And just because second-year standout Dez Bryant and back-to-back 1,000-yard receiver Miles Austin are banged up, don’t think for a second that New England is underestimating their acrobatic abilities.

After missing the Cowboys’ last two games with an ailing hamstring, Austin practiced in full on Wednesday, as did Bryant, who is nursing a thigh injury.

“He’s big, he’s fast, he’s strong, he knows how to go up there and get the ball, he’s good after the catch. He’s a beast,” Chung said of Bryant. “We’ve got to find a way to stop him. They definitely have threats out there and they definitely have a good quarterback to get them the ball.”

One telling trait that has successfully translated from week to week is the Patriots’ ability to shut down tight ends. New England last week limited Dustin Keller to one catch for seven yards. More impressive, though, was their effort in a Week 2 victory over the Chargers, when they held San Diego’s Antonio Gates, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, without a single catch.

With another seven-time Pro Bowler in Jason Witten looming, the Patriots are ready to keep the trend up.

“Any time you have a tight end like Keller or Gates who is going to affect their offense and get open and have big plays, you’ve got to make sure that you try to get those guys at the line of scrimmage before they get going,” Ninkovich said. “I think Witten is a great player, so you have to make sure that you try and stop him.”

Perhaps the Patriots’ prowess at slowing tight ends stems from one of their own. After all, defending 6-foot-6, 265-pound Rob Gronkowski in practice daily can only help.

“He’s a good guy to compare Witten to,” Ninkovich said, “as far as size and being able to be a receiving tight end as well as a blocking tight end.”

No matter how many yards, points or big plays they allow, the Patriots’ defense cares about only one thing.

“We’re still winning these games, which is a good thing,” Ninkovich said, “and I think that as long as we continue to get the offense the ball and let them do what they do best, we’re going to be all right.”

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