Facing the New England Patriots is always the toughest task the New York Jets face every year. Not only is New England a perennial playoff-contender, they've consistently won the AFC East for more than ten years now. They are currently our greatest rivals.
So the Jets enter this matchup with the AFC East all knotted up at 3-3. The Jets have a division record of 2-0, and the Patriots are 1-0. The victor of this matchup will have the lead in the AFC East and the inside track to a spot in the playoffs. The last time the Jets faced off against the Patriots for the lead of the AFC East, they were blown out on Monday Night Football to the tune of 45-3. The Jets would go on to defeat the Patriots in the AFC Divisional Game, one of the greatest victories in franchise history.
Where Each Team Is
But now, both teams have shown their weaknesses. The Jets are missing some of its biggest playmakers in Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes. However, Antonio Cromartie has played at an All-Pro level and Kyle Wilson has been vastly improved in the weeks since his first start. At the safety position as well, Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry have been a marked improvement from the Jim Leonhard/Eric Smith duo of yesteryear. On offense, Jeremy Kerley has stepped up in Holmes' absence, and with the healthy return of Dustin Keller and Stephen Hill, as well as the improvement in the offensive line and the running game, the Jets have shown some potential to field a serviceable offense.
Since the season's low-point of the blowout against the San Francisco 49ers, the Jets have gotten better each of the last two weeks by adopting a "back to basics" approach to the fundamentals of the game, as well as using the untapped potential of youth and speed on both offense and defense.
Up in New England, the Patriots have shown more flaws than in a long time. On offense, of course, they continue to look robust with an extraordinarily efficient hurry-up offense. Although Rob Gronkowski has not been quite as incredible as he was in his record-busting year last year, he has continued to be, in my mind, the best overall tight end in the league. Wes Welker continues to be Tom Brady's favorite target, and will always be a challenge to any defense. Surprisingly, the Patriots running game has been quite good this season, in contrast to years prior. Their offensive line has been, at times, questionable, allowing more sacks than they have in years. On defense, rookie ChandlerJones has been a revelation as an all-around defensive end, racking up five sacks in six games. However, the Patriots' secondary continues to be weak, giving up an inordinate amount of deep passing plays. If there is one huge weakness in the Patriots armor, it is their secondary.
Attacking the Patriots
For the Jets to win this game, their offense will need to attack the secondary of the Patriots. It is time for Stephen Hill and Chaz Schilens to use their incredible speed and burn the Patriots deep. A huge matchup will be Mark Sanchez against their secondary. Their corners have been struggling with the deep ball all season, and they are currently starting two rookie safeties due to injury, one of whom was a second round draft pick, the other a sixth round draft pick. If we see a strategy similar to the one that nearly won us the game against the Houston Texans, that is, plenty of deep passing, we could win this game.
The Patriots have had a good amount of success at stopping the run. It's going to be difficult to get the running game going, unless the offensive line can find a way to manhandle their defensive line, as was the case in our last game. If Shonn Greene runs even remotely as well as he did last week, this could be a huge change in the game.
On defense, Rex Ryan is going to need to flex his creative muscles to slow down Brady's blistering no-huddle. Expect to see a lot of the "big nickel" packages this game. This involves five defensive backs as opposed to the base four, with bigger personnel than just three small cornerbacks. Here is a good article on the subject. The Jets have been trying to build their defense around this package, in specific preparation of the Patriots. That may be why the Jets have called up Marcus Dowtin, who could be very useful in the formation.
To slow down the Patriots, the Jets will need to cover, first and foremost, Wes Welker and the two tight ends, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Although Cromartie has struggled against Welker-types in the past, I expect the Jets to put him on him a lot this game. Cromartie has been a whole new man this season, from his footwork to his hand placement. Reggie Wayne, although not as quick as Welker, primarily operates out of the slot, and Cromartie did a fine job on him. Cromartie won't be able to contain Welker quite as well, but I suspect he'll do a decent enough job. When Cromartie isn't covering Welker, look for him to be bracketed by say, Kyle Wilson and LaRon Landry. As for the tight ends, they will likely rotate Cromartie on to them as the situation dictates, which is what they sometimes did with Revis. In other circumstances, look for them to be bracketed by a safety and a linebacker.
The final key will be the pass rush. We saw the rush come alive last week, with Quinton Coples, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Aaron Maybin all having big games against the Colts. The hurry-up will lessen the chances of rushing the passer and keep ill-fitting personnel on the field, so our guys will need to make the most of their chances. If Coples is left on the field, as I believe he will, I have a feeling he will have a breakout game with at least two sacks. Their offensive line has been up and down, so our line will need to exploit that and bring down Brady.
The Patriots are the ten point favorites as we head to Foxboro, and for good reason. Despite their flaws this season, they are still, as always, a very good team. By all rights, they should win. But I have a good feeling in my gut that Sanchez and Coples will have a good game. Enough so that we'll be able to shock ESPN and take control of the AFC East. Despite our injuries and questions, things are looking brighter than just a few weeks ago. My official prediction: 23-20, New York Jets.
Update: Although he suffered a high ankle sprain last weekend, Joe McKnight said today that he was planning to play, despite expectations otherwise. He said that in a game for first place in the division, of course he's playing. Hopefully he'll look as good as he did last week, and he could be a huge help to our running game. Much credit to him for playing through the undoubtedly severe pain.