New York Jets (9-2) at New England Patriots (9-2)
December 6, 2010, 8:30 PM
One of the best rivalies in the NFL will commence again on Monday Night Football, and the stakes have rarely been higher. Both teams are 9-2 and the winner of this game will take a commanding lead in the AFC East with just four games to go. New York won the first matchup 28-14, so revenge is also at stake for the Patriots. And with both teams playing their last games last Thursday, each team has had 11 days to prepare for perhaps the biggest game of the NFL regular season to date.
When the Jets have the ball...
Much has been made of the Patriots' dead-last ranked pass defense, at least in yards-per-game. While their defense has no doubt been vulnerable through the air, some of that has to do with opposing teams needing to pass to keep up with New England's prolific offense.
Still, you don't have to look much further than the first matchup between these two teams to see the Pats' poor pass defense in action. Sanchez finished 21-30 for 220 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first matchup. Dustin Keller found seams all game long, finishing with 115 yards and a touchdown. Braylon Edwards also added 45 yards and a touchdown, burning Darius Butler all game long.
This time around, the Jets will also add Santonio Holmes to the mix. Holmes has been a star for the Jets since returning to action week 5. He's been everything the Jets could have hoped for, and now against a vulnerable secondary in a big game, Holmes should have a big game. He's been one of the most clutch receivers in the NFL over the past few years, and if there's any time for time for him to have his biggest game of the season, it would be tonight. The Patriots' secondary has improved since the week two matchup, but the Jets' offense has also gotten tougher.
The biggest key for Sanchez in the first game was his three touchdown passes to zero interceptions. He made very few bad decisions, and against a Bill Bellichick coached defense, that's not easy. While the Patriots allow a lot of yards, they also have a lot of interceptions, with an AFC-best 15 on the season. Sanchez should have time to throw though, as New England has just 20 sacks all season long
That said, Holmes and Edwards must be salivating to face rookie Devin McCourty and former undrafted rookie Kyle Arrington. The main target of the first game, Darius Butler, has not played much since Edwards torched him in week two. Arrington has been an improvement, but he's also inexperienced in his second season from Hofstra.
However, the place where the Patriots have been burned most this year is by runningbacks catching the ball. LaDainian Tomlinson will need to play a big role in this game as the Jets' primary pass catcher. No team has allowed more yards through the air by runningbacks than New England. Tomlinson had 26 yards through the air in the first game.
There are so many different ways to attack this Patriots defense. It's up to Brian Schottenheimer to find and exploit weak parts of New England's secondary and to attack them. The Jets haven't run the ball as well as they have last year, so if Sanchez is playing well, the Jets need to keep attacking and get ahead of the Patriots. The Jets haven't scored a first quarter touchdown since week 4. While the Jets usually don't start with the ball, that's still a damning stat for Schottenheimer's pre-planned plays.
The Pats' run defense is pretty average, with opponents averaging 4.2 yards-per-carry. The Jets averaged 4.3 yards-per-carry as a team in the first game, with Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combining for 128 yards on 26 carries. They would sign up for that again this time around, as the Jets really need to run the ball well to succeed. The offense does not work if the running game can't get positive yardage. Greene and LT do a good job of rarely losing yardage on the ground, but with the weather supposed to be cold and windy, the Jets will need to run the ball well in order to move the ball consistently. Sanchez is still not very proven in cold weather games.
The biggest question is how consistent this offense can be. At times, various player look like dynamic playmakers, and the Jets usually end up with 20+ points, but it's rarely been pretty. The Jets have not converted enough of their long drives with touchdowns. In such an evenly matched game, the Jets need to put the ball in the endzone and not rely on Nick Folk. They'll need every point they can get, and Folk's confidence is probably a little rattled after a few bad performances and the Jets bringing in competition to practice this week.
In this game, the Jets just need to consistently gain positive yardage and string together long drives. New England has allowed just one pass play of 40 or more yards all season long, the fewest in the NFL. However, the Patriots' third-down defense is the worst in the NFL, with opponents converting an astounding 51% of the time. The short passing game will be absolutely key, especially on a cold, windy day in New England.
This Patriots' defense is ripe for the picking. The Jets have the weapons to take advantage, and they will have to the way New England's offense has been rolling. On paper, the Jets should be able to have a big game. But the Jets have had a number of games where they just shoot themselves in the foot all the time on offense with penalties and turnovers. Don't expect a ton of big plays by the Jets tonight, but if the Jets limit the dumb mistakes, they should be able to move the ball pretty consistently all night and there are too many individual matchups the Jets should win not to put the ball in the endzone at least two or three times.
When the Patriots have the ball...
Tom Brady has been a thorn in the Jets' side ever since Mo Lewis knocked out Drew Bledsoe and first gave him his job. However, since Rex Ryan has arrived, he's struggled to a 1-2 record and looked far more flustered than during any other time in his career vs the Jets.
The key to the Jets' defense is to force third-and-long situations and disrupt Brady's timing when he gets there. First, the Jets must shut down the Patriots' running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a powerful, straight-forward back, but if the Jets swarm to the ball like they should, he shouldn't be a big factor.
The bigger issue out of the Patriots backfield is none other than Danny Woodhead. The former Jet fan favorite is now the enemy, as the Pats' main pass-catching back. Think Kevin Faulk with more speed. Woodhead is too quick for most of the Jets' linebackers. Last game, the Jets put Eric Smith on Kevin Faulk a lot of the game. Now without Jim Leonhard, Smith will have to play a more prominent role deeper in the secondary, so the Jets may even opt to put Kyle Wilson or Drew Coleman on Woodhead on many third downs.
Leonhard's injury isn't a huge impact on the field, as Smith isn't a big downgrade. But Leonhard is the defensive leader, and the man who makes the calls on the field. Communication issues have proven problematic all year long for this team. Most of the big plays against the Jets have been when one player isn't on the same page as everyone else. Against Brady, the Jets can't afford mental breakdowns.
The most intriguing matchup all game is how the Jets will slow Tom Brady and the passing game. The Jets are built around a talented tandem of cornerbacks. But the Patriots aren't built around Randy Moss and Wes Welker like the Jets are used to. They have reverted back to the Super Bowl form offense, where Brady spreads the ball around, using crossing routes, flat routes, and whatever else they can use to exploit matchups.
However, without Moss, the Jets are free to use Darrelle Revis across the field. Revis and Cromartie won't be matched up every play against a certain guy. On some plays, Revis could be on Wes Welker, other plays he'll be on Deion Branch or Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski. However, the Jets will need to disguise his coverages a lot because Brady is smart enough to give himself time to read coverages and adjust accordingly. It will truly be a chess match between Rex Ryan and Brady.
The other key with stopping Brady is getting pressure on him. Brady is not used to getting hit. Usually, he gets rid of the ball quickly and the offensive line gives him enough time to get off quick passes. The Jets love to blitz, but they haven't been getting to the quarterback that much at all this year. If the Jets are wasting 5 or 6 players on blitzes that don't work, Brady will exploit one-on-one matchups against safeties, linebackers, and extra cornerbacks. The Jets will send pressure, especially from the sides, but even more important than pressure is simply confusing the Pats' quarterback. They must disrupt his timing and make him think pressure is coming, even if it isn't.
The Jets should be able to stop the Patriots' run game pretty well, so the Jets must get off the field on third downs and tackle well. Brady will move the ball and make the Jets look bad at times, especially early in the game. But under Ryan, the Jets have been strong defensively in the 2nd half against Brady. Most likely, New England will be forced to be pretty one-dimensional. But stopping Brady is always easier said than done.
The stakes for this game are widely known. This game has been hyped up for weeks now, and finally, it's here. Both statistically and on paper, the Jets are probably the better team. But New England is at home, has the better quarterback, and the better coach in Bill Belichick. However, the Jets aren't scared of the Patriots at all. The Jets' offense has a bigger edge over the Patriots' defense than vice versa. The Jets have a bigger margin for error than the Patriots because they simply have more playmakers. New York has multiple ways to beat the Patriots. New England has one: have Tom Brady and the passing game make enough plays to make up for the lack of a defense. The difference is that now both teams are confident they can make big plays late offensively. If the Jets need that big drive late by Mark Sanchez, he can deliver it to them. And as much as Jets fans worry about Nick Folk, the Patriots fans should worry about Shayne Graham. Either way, right now, I wouldn't want either player needing to make the game-winning kick for my team. This game is going to be a great one, but if both teams play to their capabilities, the Jets should be able to win a tight game.
Jets 23, Patriots 17