The Jets started the season winning 3 out of their first 4 games, putting them in prime position to fight for a playoff spot. Many fans were worried about how the Bowles' led team would play coming off of a bye week. The Jets lost 5 out of 6 games after bye weeks under Rex Ryan, after all. The Jets continued this tradition in the first half of the game by playing sloppy football and turning the ball over regularly. The Jets dominated the second half, however, putting to bed any concerns that these were the same old Jets. For the first time in recent memory, the media has to actively search for soundbites for a Jets-Patriots game. The only real story here is that two of the NFL's best are going to be playing for first place in the division.
Where We Are
If you'd approached me at the beginning of the season and asked me where I wanted the Jets to be coming into this game, I probably would have said 3-2. Maccagnan's free agent spending spree rebuilt a defunct roster and Bowles' coaching has left little to be desired. The Jets are first in both overall defense (by a wide margin) and scoring defense, second in both rushing and passing defense, and third in takeaways. The Jets are tied with the Broncos for fewest yards per play (4.3) and first in first downs allowed (16.2 per game.) Those are some ridiculous numbers. Unfortunately for Jets fans, the offense has always been the team's weakness and prone to beat writer criticism. The Jets rank all the way down at 7th in points per game, 8th in total offense, and 8th in yards per play. To make matters worse, the Jets are dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game when listed worst to best. So yeah, the Jets better pray on offense because they're clearly incompetent. Fun statistic: Brandon Marshall is the only receiver in the NFL to record 100 yards or more in every game since week 2.
Where They Are
Many pundits had major concerns about the Patriots coming into this season and for good reason. The Patriots lost Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, and a handful of other big name players. Tom Brady was suspended for the first 4 games of the season, including matchups against the Steelers and Bills. They'd also have to face the Cowboys and Colts, making their first 5 games of the season extremely dangerous. Low and behold, Tom Brady's suspension was lifted and he played against a Steelers team that was missing about half of its players due to suspensions and injury. They would go on to crush overhyped Bills and Colts teams before beating a Brandon Weeden led Cowboys team that was also missing just about every decent player not named Sean Lee. Honestly, it's hard to get a handle on just how good the Patriots are this season. The teams they've beaten have mostly been awful and missing key players. Their closest games came against a mediocre Bills team and a paper tiger Colts team with an injured Andrew Luck. The Colts also suffered from some poor officiating that seemingly deflated the team after an onside kick attempt was declared Patriots' ball. The Patriots' luck did a complete 180 over the course of the offseason/early season, and although they've dominated most of their opponents, they haven't had a real test yet this season. Are the Patriots the best team in the NFL right now? It's very possible, but I'm not sure anyone can objectively say that they are based on what we've seen thus far. What we do know is that the Patriots will be the favorites to win the division every year that Brady and Belichick are in command, and for good reason.
|Fitzpatrick, Ryan||QB||Right Elbow||FP||FP||FP||probable|
It's hard to choose a single player as the X-Factor for the Jets this game. The Patriots are a very scheme-based team on offense and don't really have a single stud player that you have to account for other than Gronkowski, who is unlikely to be covered by a single guy. On defense, there is no big name star that you have stop. I've tried to avoid giving my X-Factor designation to Chris Ivory because you could potentially do it every game with how he's been playing, but I really think he could be the difference. The Patriots love deferring on the opening kickoff and getting the ball with 2-6 minutes left at the end of the first half and getting what is essentially a double possession. They also love running up the score and taking away your best weapon. If they try to stack the box against Ivory, Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker will likely make them pay as long as Ivory can keep them honest. Ivory doesn't need to get 150+ scrimmage yards again this week for the Jets to win: He just needs to control the clock and keep the Patriots honest.
There are a lot of options for the Patriots' X-Factor, and again, I had trouble choosing just one. Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare and Julian Edelman is a guy that can really impact games in a lot of ways (Edelman's finger injury against the Colts had a huge impact on his play and could effect the Patriots offense again this week.) In the end, I decided to pick another running back in Dion Lewis. If Lewis isn't able to play (he's listed as questionable with an abdomen injury), the Patriots offense really becomes one dimensional. Lewis is the only real receiving threat out of the backfield, and without that element on offense, the Patriots don't have a lot of options on offense. The QB is immobile, the wide receivers are small, the routes are all short because the offensive line is so shaky. If Lewis can play, he can exploit the Jets' biggest weaknesses. Belichick has often taken advantage of the Jets linebackers' inability to cover wheel routes, leading to some huge plays in divisional games by Shane Vereen. Lewis is a similar type of player who could open up the playbook for the Patriots. The Eagles nearly broke two long plays on similar plays earlier in the year, but both Darren Sproles and Ryan Matthews dropped easy completions. I doubt Lewis would make the same mistake.
Keys To Victory
The Patriots have a very specific way of doing things. On offense, they will stick to short passes on the outside with their shifty little receivers. They'll pound the rock with a thumping RB like Blount and set up screens and wheels with a scat back like Lewis. They'll rarely throw a deep ball, which will almost always be up the seam to their giant Gronkowski. This is a death by a thousand cuts offense that is incredibly boring to watch, but highly efficient. It plays to the players' strengths, especially in the case of Brady. He doesn't deal with pressure well and the offensive line is unreliable, so Brady gets rid of the ball immediately on almost every play. The small receivers don't do well with contested balls, but they can get a lot of YAC and are dangerous in open space. Gronkowski is the straw that stirs the drink as a matchup nightmare. He can stretch the field and often requires double teams, but he also will dominate any safety in the running game. So how do you stop it? The Jets need to play tight press coverage that doesn't allow short passes, while dropping linebackers into coverage rather than over-committing on the blitz. Let Wilkerson, Harrison, Richardson, and Williams provide the pressure with the occasional LB and CB blitz. Force the Patriots to throw it deep and turn the ball over. Tackling is also paramount.
The Patriots strategy on defense is also very specific. They will take away your best player and force you out of your comfort zone. Fortunately for the Jets, there are two studs on offense right now. Brandon Marshall is on pace for over 1,600 yards and Chris Ivory is leading the NFL in rushing yards per game. If the Patriots put a ton of guys in the box to stop Ivory, they will be risking single coverage on Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker with Malcolm Butler and...other. While Devin McCourty is an excellent free safety who can often provide support to corners, Malcolm Butler is the best corner on the Patriots. I haven't seen enough of him to comment on his future, but he hasn't seemed better than a mediocre option thus far. Marshall has shredded Pro Bowl players like Vontae Davis and Brent Grimes this year for over 100 yards apiece, so if I'm the Patriots, I won't assume that Butler can lock him down. Even if he does, Eric Decker will abuse lesser corners in the NFL, and the Jets have a decent slot option in Kerley to stretch out an already shallow CB position for the Patriots. The Patriots have a solid defensive line and pretty good linebackers, but they will most likely have to use Patrick Chung in run support if they plan to stop Ivory, who is one of the hottest backs in the league right now. If they do try to cut Ivory out of the game, Marshall and Decker should feast on easy matchups, especially with help from the play action. The Jets should attempt to force Devin McCourty and take advantage deep for big plays to their giant receivers on the outside.
The Bottom Line
No matter what your game plan is coming into the game, the evil hoodie will eventually figure you out and adjust accordingly. You have to make adjustments of your own. That is something that we haven't seen from the Jets coaching staff in years...until now. The Jets have been absolute monsters in the second half of games. The Jets have 1 interception, 3 fumble recoveries, and 3 sacks in the first half of games; they have 7 interceptions, 4 fumble recoveries, and 5 sacks in the second half. The Jets have outscored opponents 68-21 in the second half and haven't allowed a single team to score twice after halftime. Those are some impressive halftime adjustments.
So, you ask, who is going to win this game? I knew you were going to ask that, why do you always have to pressure me, jeez. It's really hard to know. Both teams have cruised through the season without serious measuring sticks, with the only close game being the Jets' loss to the Eagles in which they played uncharacteristically poor football early on. The teams match up well, with the Jets having more overall talent and the Patriots having more experience and a Hall of Fame quarterback. The Jets have the #1 NFL defense and the Patriots have the #1 DVOA offense. I hate to admit it, but I expect the Patriots to win the game in a close one. You never really know what to expect in a Jets-Patriots game, but I'd guess the Patriots win a one score game that looks something like 28-24. Home field advantage (notably potent in the dead-zone-esque Gillette Stadium) certainly gives the Patriots an edge, and it's hard to bet against Tom Brady at home against a division rival. Unless it's the 2011 playoffs. I did my best to keep the trash talking and cheating references to a minimum, but no matter what Bowles says, this is the biggest game of the year for fans.