The Jets head to Foxborough this week for a Thursday night showdown with the New England Patriots. Exactly two years and one day from the date Eric Mangini officially arrived with a stunning upset in New England, he will look to take control of the AFC East from his former mentor. Even though there will be plenty of season to play after this showdown, this game could very well decide the 2008 winner of the division, one the Pats have dominated this decade..
The winner of this contest between bitter rivals will be in great position to take the AFC East title. A Patriots win would put New England up a game on the Jets and with the tiebreaker by virtue of a head to head sweep. A Jets win would give New York the one game lead in the East and a 3-1 division record against what would be a 1-3 record for the Pats. With six left after this battle, the loser is going to have to play almost flawlessly the rest of the way to come back. If the Jets pull a win out like they did in Foxborough in stunning fashion during the 2006 season, Bill Belichick will be looking up at his old pupil, Eric Mangini, for the first time ever, hopefully a trend that will continue for years to come.
Matt Cassel, New England's starting quarterback with Tom Brady out, has a simple mission. Do not lose the game. The Pats have a good enough defense to pull out tight contests if he avoids catastrophic errors. He has hit two-thirds of his passes but averaged less than 7 yards per completion because his coaching staff is weary of taking chances. He receives a lot of safe, simple calls. An indication of the manner by which the Pats have scaled back the playbook is the fact that Wes Welker, the underneath route runner, has 22 more catches and 21 more receiving yards than vertical threat, Randy Moss.
New England's average of 133 rushing yards per contest is testament both to more conservative playcalling and the excellence of its offensive line. Laurence Maroney is done for the year. Sammy Morris and Lamont Jordan are banged up. Still, the Pats got a 100 yard game against Buffalo last week by BenJarvis Green-Ellis. New England also has the versatile and always productive Kevin Faulk in the backfield mix. Nick Kaczur, Billy Yates, Dan Koppen, Logan Mankins, and Matt Light might be the most physical front five in football.
New England has one of the best defensive units in football. Ty Warren, Richard Seymour, and Vince Wilfork are just as tough and physical up front as their counterparts on the offensive line. The Pats also have an effective linebacking corps. Rookie Jerrod Mayo leads the club with 65 tackles. Warren is second with 38. Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi are aging but still effective. New England will miss Adalius Thomas, who will miss the rest of 2008 with a broken arm. The versatile linebacker had 5 of the team's 30 sacks this season.
The weakness of the defense is the secondary. Rodney Harrison is done for the season with a knee injury. This means both that the Pats have lost the leader of the defensive backfield and that Jets receivers do not have to worry about being speared after a play is over. Add injuries to corners Lewis Sanders and Terrance Wheatley, and New England has an unremarkable lineup of Deltha O'Neal, Ellis Hobbs, Brandon Merriweather, and James Sanders starting in the secondary. Then again, this unit blanketed New York's talented receiving corps in Week 2.
Stephen Gostkowski will probably never develop into a legend like his predecessor, Adam Vinateri, but he has been extremely accurate this season, connecting on 21 of 23 field goals. Chris Hanson averages a solid but unspectacular 44.3 yards per punt.
Key Matchup: Kris Jenkins vs. Dan Koppen
Jenkins manhandled Koppen in the first meeting and almost single-handedly shut down the New England rushing attack. If the game is solely on Cassel's shoulders, it is to New York's advantage. Whether the game will be solely on his shoulders will largely be determined by this elite matchup.
Keys to Victory:
1. Pray for Drops: It is no longer a question of whether Brett Favre will make ill-advised passes. He has shown that he will consistently put at least two balls per game right into a defender's hands. The Rams dropped all of their chances. This might be the only way the Jets avoid a killer turnover.
2. Spread the Field: Given New England's lack of depth, this actually is the right spot for the four and five receiver sets Brian Schottenheimer loves. Chansi Stuckey and Dustin Keller are going to see mismatches.
3. Don't Overcoach: For once, the Jets can actually line up and compete with the Pats. While a gadget play here or there will keep the Pats honest, the Jets should avoid relying as heavily on high risk trick plays as they have in past matchups.
4. Get Leon Involved Offensively: Leon Washington is the biggest playmaker the offense has. The focus on getting him involved in recent weeks has been refreshing. In such a big game, the Jets need to get him at least 15 touches.
5. Law as Nickel: Ty Law will be toast if the Jets line him up with Randy Moss or Wes Welker. Against a slow, possession receiver like Jabar Gaffney, however, Ty should be able to hold his own and potentially bait New England's inexperienced quarterback into a costly mistake.
Best Case Scenario:
Down 24-20 with 2:00 left, Brett Favre puts together an epic 80 yard drive to lead the Jets to a win, justifying the trade and becoming a New York legend in the process.
Worst Case Scenario:
New York comes out flat, Favre starts throwing balls up for grabs on every series to try and play the hero, and the Jets get completely run out of the building.
What Will Happen:
Since the Jets are now the team with the Hall of Fame quarterback, it may be a long time before they are in this good of a position to win the division over the hated Pats. This is what makes this pick so difficult. The Pats are a grind it out team without Brady. They do not make mistakes. They play good defense and win the field position battle. They have a better kicking game than the Jets do, and their quarterback is much less prone to make a killer mistake. Part of me is trying to jinx the Pats. I have never wanted to be wrong more badly in my life, but I think the Pats grind out a victory.