Monday, December 27, 2010

Jets lose in shootout but clinch playoff berth

Just when the offense finally hits its stride, the defense self-destructs. In one of the most exciting and high-scoring games of the season, the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Jets 38-34 at Soldier Field.

Mark Sanchez played brilliantly for most of the game before throwing an interception on the Jets' final drive with under a minute to go. He finished 24-37 for 269 yards and a touchdown to go with that pick. It should have been two touchdowns, but Dustin Keller dropped an easy touchdown pass late in the 2nd quarter. The Jets ended up settling for a field goal, a point swing which ended up being big.

The Jets came out of both halves flat, with the Bears jumping on them early. Chicago scored the first 10 points, 7 of which were set up by a Santonio Holmes fumble. The Jets answered with a nice scoring drive, culminating in a Shonn Greene run. A minute and four seconds later, Dwight Lowery intercepted Dwight Lowery and returned it to the endzone to give the Jets a 14-10 lead. A LaDainian Tomlinson touchdown seven minutes later gave the Jets 21 unanswered points, and it looked like they were on their way.

Sanchez completed his first 9 passes, and Greene was running hard early, so it looked like the Jets would be able to score at will on the Bears. And they were. Only the Bears would score more.

The next drive, the pass rush that had been getting to Cutler for the first quarter and a half suddenly disappeared. And just like that, so did the Jets chances of winning. Cutler ran for a score on the Bears' next drive as they went right down the field on the Jets' defense.

Nick Folk added a field goal before the half, after Keller dropped a pass in the endzone. The 3rd quarter was all Chicago. After the Jets went three-and-out, Rex Ryan, Brian Schottenheimer, and Mike Westhoff opted for a fake punt that involved Sanchez lining up as the up-man. Brad Smith couldn't bring in the conversion, and the Jets turned the ball over at their own 40. Cutler found Johnny Knox burning Dwight Lowery for a touchdown on the very next play. The Jets again went three-and-out their next possession. This time, Steve Weatherford punted the ball to Devin Hester, who returned the punt 38 yards. Hester then scored three plays later on a deep ball from Cutler to give the Bears a touchdown lead.

But the Jets weren't done yet. The Jets marched 66 yards on four plays, with Sanchez finding a wide open Santonio Holmes in the endzone to tie the game. Unfortunately, the defense once again relented the lead right back. Buoyed by more great field position, Cutler brought the Bears 49 yards, with Knox scoring his second touchdown of the game.

The Jets then decided to slow the game down. Ryan did not feel his team was equipped for a shootout, so this time the Jets went on a longer drive, relying on short passes and runs. But the 12 play drive faltered in the red zone, setting up Folk's second field goal. The Jets caught a break with Bears kicker Robbie Gould missing a 35-yard field goal to keep the deficit at 4. Again, the Jets went on a 12 play drive, but the drive stalled at the 35-yardline, where the Jets punted. After forcing a three-and-out, the Jets got the ball back but couldn't get a first down of their own. Again, Weatherford punted, pinning the Bears at the 10. Matt Forte ran for one first down, killing the clock all the way down to 1:03 left before the Jets got the ball back. The Jets hopes were quickly dashed when Bears safety Chris Harris intercepted Sanchez on a deep ball down the sideline to end the game.

The sting from this game ended quickly with news that the Jets clinched a playoff spot anyway. But the defense's problems raise a number of red flags. Cutler accounted for four touchdowns, while Forte became the first back to rush over 100 yards all season against the Jets. Part of the problem was the Soldier Field turf, which caused horrible footing all day long for defenses reacting to offensive movements. That definitely didn't help. But that doesn't change the fact that for the second straight week, the opposing runningback broke a lot of tackles and was able to consistently move the chains.

And the pass rush was completely nonexistent after the first 20 minutes. Cutler was barely touched as he was able to wait for his speedy receivers to gain separation. It's no secret that a Mike Martz offense wants to throw the ball down the field, and Cutler was able to slice and dice the Jets' secondary all game long. He was sacked just twice in the game and barely hurried, despite coming into the game with a league-high 48 sacks.

Offensively, there was a lot to like. For the second straight week, Sanchez had time to throw and made the most of it. Keller, Holmes, and Braylon Edwards each had at least 69 yards. Keller and Holmes did have key miscues that hurt the offense, but they really can't take the blame for this loss. Shonn Greene also looked very good running the ball for 70 yards on just 12 carries. However, LaDainian Tomlinson continued to struggle, tallying just 28 yards on 13 carries. When the playoffs come, it's imperative the Jets give the ball more to Greene, who has clearly been the better runner as of late. He's also made strides in the passing game, enough so that it isn't obvious that when he's in the game, he's getting the carry.

The Jets had 393 yards to the Bears' 322. But not surprisingly, the turnover battle and special teams were the difference. Both teams converted early turnovers into touchdowns, but the Jets turning the ball over on downs in the 3rd quarter and interception on their last drive were both key moments in the game. Both teams pride themselves on strong special teams. However, while Weatherford had one of the prettiest coffin corners you will ever see late, the Bears outclassed the Jets in this regard. The Jets were scared to kick it deep to Devin Hester and Danieal Manning. And when they did kick it deep, they burned the Jets.

However, despite the problems in this game, the Jets have two weeks to get them straightened out before the playoffs. Gang Green is locked into the six seed, which likely means a trip to Kansas City or possibly Indianapolis or Jacksonville. Because of this, there's little chance Sanchez or a number of other starters that could use a rest will play next week. The week 17 home game against Buffalo is now meaningless except for record-keeping, so the Jets will probably work more on preparing for the playoffs than anything else.

Critics will call it backing into the playoffs, but the Jets all but clinched last week. Getting into the playoffs at 10-5 in week 16 is not backing into the playoffs, even if mathematically, the Jets clinched after a loss. Since the loss to Miami, it's been clear the Jets needed to win one of their last four games to make the playoffs, and that's just what they did last week against Pittsburgh. You can't back in when there is still another game on the schedule.

Still, Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine need to hit the film room hard and figure out just why the defense has gotten embarrassed two of the last four weeks. It's impossible to change personnel now, but the coaching staff needs to figure out some way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Because of that, and the Jets lack of playmakers at safety, the Jets struggle mightily to get interceptions. Moving Lowery to safety gets another ballhawk in the game, but he's limited, and good quarterbacks won't force bad throws when they have all day to throw.

All year, this team has shown flashes of everything. Sometimes, the run defense is elite. Sometimes, the pass defense looks tough to beat. Sometimes, the running game can consistently move the ball. Sometimes, the passing game clicks. Sometimes, special teams can make some big plays. But it's been impossible for all the units to click at the same time. Last week at Pittsburgh was close, but even then, the defense was one play away from losing that game and giving this season an entirely different feel. The Jets are what they are at this point, and that's a good team but one that lacks the consistency or identity to make a Super Bowl run. Things can change if the Jets can get some confidence in the playoffs and the right matchups. But if the Jets can't force Jay Cutler off his rhythm behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, it's hard to imagine them throwing Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or even Matt Cassel off his game in the postseason.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Week 16 NFL Picks

Finally, a winning week last week at 2-1, bringing my season record to 22-18-2. Let's get right to my week 16 picks, and let's hope I can clinch an above .500 season this week.

Redskins +7 over Jaguars
Washington is a mess, but I am not a believer in Jacksonville. The Jaguars will miss Maurice Jones-Drew their best offensive playmaker. Rashad Jennings is an adequate fill-in at runningback, but really, I think that without those two players, the spread should be closer to 4. Both teams have negative point differentials on the season. Players on Washington are playing for their jobs last year, and they showed some fight coming back last week. Look for them to give the Jaguars a real test this week. Santana Moss, Anthony Armstrong, and Chris Cooley should be able to get open against the Jacksonville secondary, and Ryan Torain has brought back the running game. Look for one of the more entertaining games of the day, but one that will definitely fall within the number.
Jaguars 31, Redskins 28

Bengals +8.5 over Chargers
San Diego is coming off back-to-back blowout wins. That's a perfect recipe to fade them the next week. Cincinnati finally got back to winning last week. No surprise, it was the same week where Terrell Owens was hurt, and the Bengals got back to a run-first offense. This team completely revamped their offensive philosophy when they brought in Owens. Now, they will get back to basics. This could be a letdown spot for Norv Turner and the Chargers in freezing Cincinnati. Getting over a touchdown, I'm feeling pretty confident.
Chargers 20, Bengals 17

Chiefs -4.5 over Titans
Kansas City is a better team than everyone expected. Tennessee looked good last week, but their season is all but over. The Chiefs are undefeated at home and have all the motivation to win this game. The Titans' defense is mediocre at best, and Kerry Collins is not a good quarterback. The Titans have a few weapons offensively, but the Chiefs have enough on defense to slow Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt. With Matt Cassel playing, the Chiefs have the edge at almost every position. Giving less than a touchdown at home, I'll take the Chiefs.
Chiefs 27, Titans 17

Jets vs Bears Preview

New York Jets (10-4) at Chicago Bears (10-4)
December 26, 2010, 1:00 PM
Soldier Field
Line: Jets +2

After righting a season that could have easily spiraled out of control last week in Pittsburgh, the Jets look to clinch a berth in the playoffs for the second consecutive season. Chicago accomplished that feat last week, assuring themselves of the NFC North title last Monday night. The Jets will be the more desperate team, but the Bears also control their own destiny for a first-round bye, so they have motivation as well. These are two similar teams in a lot of ways. Both the Jets and the Bears have been road warriors this season, with 6-1 road records and 4-3 home records. Both teams rely on stout defenses with shaky offenses. In cold Soldier Field, look for a tight, low-scoring battle between two fairly evenly matched teams.

When the Jets have the ball...
The biggest key for the Jets winning this game is not turning the ball over. The Bears thrive on forcing turnovers. They've forced 31 turnovers this season, so avoiding them will be a huge obstacle. Mark Sanchez has not been a very good quarterback in his young career in very cold weather games, so this will be a big test for him. He got by the Polamalu-less Steelers without turning the ball over. If he can do it again, it would be huge for his confidence going forward.

Last week, the Jets were able to get more room on the ground than expected against the mighty Steelers. Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and the Bears' front seven will be a similarly difficult test. The Bears allow 3.8 yards-per-carry on the year, although teams have been able to punch in 12 touchdowns on the ground. The lack of Damien Woody will once again hurt, but the Jets will probably continue to give RT Wayne Hunter help on the outside by using OL Robert Turner as a tight end. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson simply haven't been impressive lately. Tomlinson showed flashes last week, but he needs to do more. Both seem to be one broken tackle away from breaking a few longer runs, but they just can't seem to do it. On a cold, windy day in Chicago, the Jets will need their running game to make their mark and at least be a threat, or they will have a very difficult time winning this game. The unit doesn't have to be dominant, but it must make the Bears respect the run.

If the Jets want to score this game, it will be on the shoulders of Sanchez and the passing game. As tough as the Bears defense is, they do allow opposing quarterbacks to dink and dunk. Lovie Smith is a disciple of the Tony Dungy/Herman Edwards Tampa-2 system that doesn't allow plays deep down the field. A stout run defense and a unit that doesn't allow big plays is tough to score on, especially with the Jets as shaky as they have been offensively. Chicago will force them to string out long drives and grind out first downs. Converting those long drives into touchdowns has been a constant problem this year, and that's exactly what Chicago will force the Jets to do. Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, Dustin Keller, and Tomlinson all have the ability to win their individual matchups, but we've seen far too many plays on third down that leave you shaking your head to assume the Jets will convert on third down like they have to. Sure enough, the Bears defense holds opponents to a 35% conversion rate on third downs, one of the best in the league.

In each of the four losses this year, the Jets failed to score a touchdown. Last week, the special teams picked up the slack with Brad Smith returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Sanchez had the one offensive touchdown on a naked bootleg. The Jets are undefeated this year when they score a touchdown and winless when they don't. With points sure to be at a premium, look for that trend to hold, for better or for worse. 

When the Bears have the ball...
The Bears' offense has been odd to watch all season long. There are speedy playmakers like Johnny Knox and Devin Hester that can get deep and make plays in a Mike Martz offense. Yet, the Bears are near the bottom of the league in passes of both 20+ yards and 40+ yards. The offensive line has gotten Cutler sacked a league-high 48 times this year, yet the running game has been slightly better than last season.

Still, against the Jets, running room will be hard to find. Rashard Mendenhall's 99-yard performance last week was impressive, but Matt Forte is not nearly as talented as Mendenhall. Forte is still a versatile threat who can do some work inside the tackles and outside in the passing game. He's been running well of late, but the Jets will be the best run defense he's faced in a while. Look for him to be more of a threat in the passing game on third downs.

Passing the ball, the Bears are another one of those teams, like New England and Cleveland, where there is no clear-cut number one receiver to gameplan against. Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will take turns matching up with Knox, Hester, and Earl Bennett. If Cutler is smart, he'll try to follow the lead of other quarterbacks against the Jets and attack the nickel back. He's said this week he'll challenge Revis, but that's probably foolish. Knox and Hester do have elite top-end speed, though, so if Revis or Cromartie were to get beat, it would probably be on a deep ball.

That is, if Cutler has time. While the Jets' pass rush has been solved by a large part of the NFL, the Bears are a very good matchup for the Jets. Mike Martz's offenses traditionally send a lot of people into passing routes, which would give the Bears less help against the Jets' pass rush. As much maligned as the front seven has been this season in getting to the quarterback, the Jets do have 35 sacks on the year. Cutler gets sacked more than anyone in the NFL, so look for the Jets to disrupt Cutler's timing and possibly even force some turnovers for once. If Cutler takes a lot of five and seven step drops, the Jets will make him pay.

This is a classic, cold weather football team between two strong defensive teams. The key will be which team can force more turnovers. Will the Jets force Cutler back to his interception-happy ways by sending a lot of blitz looks at him? Or will the Bears feast on Sanchez's tendencies and pick off some passes of their own? When all is said and done, the Jets have more motivation to win this game and are more likely to stick with a ball-control offense to win the game. This is a toss-up, but with the Bears playing on short rest, look for the Jets to win another game that goes right down to the wire.
Jets 16, Bears 10

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Day After: Jets end slide, beat Steelers 22-17

What a difference a week makes.

After all the drama surrounding the Jets last week, about the losing streak, about talking too much, about Sal Alosi, about a large part of the nation doubting the Jets, Gang Green responded with a 22-17 win on the road in Pittsburgh.

It wasn't pretty, but when have the Jets ever played pretty football? The main issue heading into the game was just how the Jets would score points on Pittsburgh. The news of Troy Polamalu's injury relieved some doubts. But after not scoring a touchdown in the last two games, Brad Smith returned the opening kickoff 97 yards to end that ignominious streak.

The Jets earned their 22 points creatively. Smith's kickoff set the tone. The sole offensive touchdown was on a 4th-and-1 Mark Sanchez quarterback bootleg. Nick Folk made both of his field goal attempts. Finally, Jason Taylor notched a safety to cap the score at 22.

The defense wasn't lights out, but like the offense, it was good enough to win. On the final drive of the game, when Ben Roethlisberger drove his team down the field for a potential game-winning score, he went all the way to the 10-yard line, before the Jets finally stopped the Steelers at the goalline.

This was a slugfest, with both teams being able to move the ball okay offensively. But when it counted, the Jets made a few plays late and Ben Roethlisberger's pass as time expired fell incomplete. If the Steelers completed that drive with a touchdown, there would be a ton of second-guessing and panic this week. Instead, the Jets snuck away with a huge conference win against the likely AFC North champions, despite being outgained by 102 yards.

Most of the targets of criticism during the week responded strongly. Sanchez was on target almost all game, scoring the team's only offensive touchdown. Brian Schottenheimer made some great playcalls in key spots, most notably the aforementioned Sanchez naked bootleg. The special teams unit was stellar, as Brad Smith scored a touchdown and 3 of Steve Weatherford's 4 punts were downed inside the 20.

This wasn't a great overall performance, but it was refreshing to see the team compliment each other so well. Special teams made an early statement, the offense answered after the Steelers scored after halftime, and the defense not only held onto the lead but extended it with Taylor's huge safety. The team was well-prepared and, for the most part, well-coached.

The biggest issues with the coaching staff almost all have to do with clock management. Rex Ryan has yet to show he's a competent time manager as head coach. Where's Dick Curl when you need him? At the end of the first half, the Jets ran a conservative, half-hearted effort to move the ball down the field. With 29 seconds left and two time outs, the Jets got the ball at their own 37. Rather than try to move the ball down the field and add some points before the half, the Jets threw a 6-yard pass in the middle of the field, didn't call time out, and went into halftime without even trying. If you're going to throw the ball, go all out. If you're not calling time out, don't throw the ball short in the middle of the field, just run it. Tipped passes and mistakes can happen.

They should have tried to move the ball and get the lead. Pittsburgh was to receive the ball in the 2nd half, the Jets should have tried to steal some momentum. It's not as if Sanchez was playing poorly.

Then, later in the game with the lead, the Jets ran three pass plays that fell incomplete, stopping the clock. Run the ball any of those plays, and the Steelers likely don't have time for their near-comeback. Facing a 2nd-and-5 from the Steeler 32, the Jets ran back-to-back passes, then punted. With such good field position and the lead, the Jets should have run at least one of those plays. Maybe you pick up a few yards and get in more comfortable field goal range. Maybe you pick up the 1st down. But at worst, the clock keeps running, and brings you closer to the end of the game. Then on a 3rd-and-3 with 2:24 left, the Jets threw the ball again. I didn't hate the playcall, but getting another 20 seconds off the clock would have been huge. If you throw, you better complete the pass. Stopping the clock three more times than necessary gave Pittsburgh enough time to scare the living daylights out of Jets fans.

3rd down defense was also a problem. The Steelers had their way with the Jets on 3rd down, going 11-17. This extended drives, kept the defense on the field, and almost cost the Jets the game. On the final drive alone, the Steelers started at the 8 yard line, and the defense let them march 82 yards. That included 3 third down conversions, most notably a 3rd-and-24, in which Emmanuel Sanders was left wide open in the middle of the field for a 29-yard gain. That's inexcusable. The Jets have struggled in 3rd and long situations all season long, and that was one of the most glaring examples.

Still, you have to hand it to the Jets. Against a difficult opponent, albeit one struggling offensively and missing its defensive captain, the Jets suffered adversity and came out ahead. They ran the ball better than expected, as LaDainian Tomlinson looked good on his 11 carries for 45 yards. The receivers didn't drop any passes. Braylon Edwards, in particular, had a big game, posting 100 yards on the day. Drew Coleman sacked Roethlisberger twice and forced two fumbles.

After this, the Jets travel to Chicago to face the Bears. Lovie Smith's team clinched the NFC North title on Monday night, but they still are fighting for seeding. Still, coming off a short week after playing on a basically frozen field, the Bears could have a bit of a letdown. Just like last week, the Jets will be facing a tough defense that thrives on stopping the run. The confidence Sanchez gained this week will have to carry over next week, as the Jets need to be able to pass the ball and beware of turnovers to win. Chicago tackles very well and knows how to force turnovers as well as any defense in the NFL, so if the Jets play mistake-free football again, they should be able to win their 7th game on the road. Like this week, however, it will not be easy.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Jets look to end losing streak at Pittsburgh

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
December 19, 2010, 4:15 PM EST
Heinz Field
Line: Jets +6

The Jets look to end two losing streaks against Pittsburgh, the two game skid that has dropped them out of legitimate consideration for the AFC East title, as well as get their first win ever on the road in Pittsburgh against six losses. The Steelers own a one game lead and probably the tiebreaker over the Ravens in the AFC North. However, their trademark defense has a lot to prove with the news that star safety Troy Polamalu will miss this game and possibly the rest of the season with a lower leg injury. Without him, the Steelers are suddenly much more vulnerable through the air. But can the Jets take advantage of it?

When the Jets have the ball...
After not scoring an offensive touchdown in nine straight quarters, the Jets can't be too happy to see road games with Pittsburgh and Chicago on the slate. These aren't the best defenses to sort out problems against.

Pittsburgh is an aggressive, hard-hitting defense that is the best in the NFL at stopping the run. The Jets haven't been opening up holes for a while, and with RT Damien Woody sidelined, the Steelers could abuse Wayne Hunter. LaDainian Tomlinson hasn't been nearly as productive lately. This may be a game for the more powerful Shonn Greene, but the best thing about Tomlinson is that he doesn't fumble, and that's key to this game. LT is also a superior pass catching back, as the screen play could be a major part of this game.

Pittsburgh loves to blitz, so blitz pickup will be of the essence. Look for the Jets to line backup OL Robert Turner as a tight end on 3rd down a lot this week to give Hunter some help. The speed of LaMarr Woodley will be tough for the Jets all game, especially after what Cameron Wake did last week.

The key to this game will be how Mark Sanchez responds to the blitzes and whether or not he can make the quick decisions and accurate throws to burn the Steelers. They don't allow many big plays, but short screens, slants, and even Brian Schottenheimer's favorite, the out pattern, will be used to get the ball out of Sanchez's hands quickly. Without Polamalu patrolling the secondary, the Jets have more freedom to throw the ball. Polamalu can hurt offenses in so many different ways. Now, the Jets can throw the ball without having to gameplan for one differencemaker. That could lead to some more deep passes being successful.

Santonio Holmes going up against his former team will be plenty motivated. Pittsburgh knows how good he is, but can they stop him? Personnel-wise, the Steelers struggle to match up with the dynamic Holmes. Braylon Edwards hasn't been used as much recently, and in a game where he will probably be catching the ball and drawing contact a lot, the Jets will probably continue to use the more reliable Jerricho Cotchery a lot. Finally, look for Dustin Keller to be a main focus of the offense. The Jets want to go back to basics on offense. That means a lot of short passes to the tight end. When the Jets offense was playing at its peak early in the year, Keller was a focal point.

The Jets have a lot of guys who should be able to make plays. But Sanchez has played with such little confidence lately, it's hard for them to do much damage. A fast start will be key for this offense. As will the loss of Polamalu, as he was the one exceptional player who could win the turnover ratio for the Steelers. Sanchez has thrown a lot of near-picks, Polamalu wouldn't drop them. Without him, the Jets will be able to have some success through the air, and even score their first touchdown in three weeks.

When the Steelers have the ball...
While the Jets' offense has been putrid lately, the Steelers haven't been a whole lot better. They didn't score an offensive touchdown last week and haven't had more than one in a game in almost a month. The primary culprit is the offensive line, which has been poor all season and now ravaged by injuries. Just as the Jets have to worry about the Steelers' blitz packages, Pittsburgh needs to do a good job picking up the blitzes, as the Jets will blitz Roethlisberger a lot. The key is sacking him when he's wrapped up and actually bring him down.

Rashard Mendenhall has had a solid season replacing Willie Parker full-time, but the Jets' run defense is pretty stout. Mendenhall isn't overly fast or overly powerful, so the Jets should do a good job containing him. He's also fumbled a few times. Isaac Redman, who is a powerful back with some pass catching ability, is the primary change-of-pace back.

Roethlisberger is so tough to defend against because he keeps plays alive. He's mobile enough to run away from people, but he's also strong enough to shake off defenders and throw even with the opposition all over him. The Jets' pass rush has looked better of late, not that that says much, and they should get some pressure. But they need to complete the job and actually bring Big Ben down.

His two primary receivers are Mike Wallace and Hines Ward. Wallace is the speedster. He's one of the best deep threats in the league, and if he's matched up against anyone other than Revis or Cromartie, the Steelers will take a shot. Revis, in his homecoming game, will probably see more Ward while the speedy Cromartie will get the speedy Wallace. Ward is a veteran possession receiver who is tough as nails but isn't much of a deep threat. Wallace is clearly the one to watch out for, as his big plays or lack thereof are the biggest key, besides turnovers, for this defense.

Overall, the Jets defense matches up nicely with Pittsburgh. They blitz enough to get after the quarterback with numbers against a bad offensive line. They stop the run better than most. Their cornerback tandem is as good as there is in the league, going against the Steelers' two receivers. The Jets might need to generate a score from the defense or special teams to win, but there's no reason the Steelers should get more than a touchdown.

I've gone back and forth on this all week since the Polamalu injury. And the bottom line is, without Polamalu in the lineup, I think the Jets are a better team. As long as Sanchez isn't completely terrible, the Jets have a better chance to put points on the board against Pittsburgh than vice versa. Sanchez's play is the key. There will be plays to be made on the field. He needs to make enough of them to win the game. It's just not that hard to see either side winning this game. Both teams are good on defense and inconsistent on offense. In the first game A.T. (after Troy), look for the Steelers to have some communication issues and not force enough turnovers to beat a desperate and angry Jets team.
Jets 20, Steelers 17

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Week 15 NFL Picks

Another losing week for me last week. Hard to predict Aaron Rodgers getting injured. Not as difficult to predict Carson Palmer throwing pick-sixes to the Steelers, but I thought 9.5 points would be enough. At 20-17-2, I'm one winless week away from .500 on the season. At this point, it may be a better time to fade me than follow me, but let's try to grind out a positive week.

Jets +6 over Steelers
All week, I thought the Jets had little chance to beat the Steelers. Why? While neither team will move the ball that well, Mark Sanchez has a much better chance of losing the game than Ben Roethlisberger. Then Troy Polamalu was ruled out of the game, and everything changed. Polamalu's absence is enough to knock the Steelers from an elite defense to one that can be burned through the air. Without Polamalu to make big plays and bail the team out, Sanchez should be able to have some success passing the ball. It's hard to imagine either team having a whole lot of success running the ball. This should be a tight, low scoring game that can really go either way. 6 points is a lot for this game.

Panthers -2.5 over Cardinals

Taking a team with 1 win all season at home giving points? It sounds ridiculous, but there are so many reasons to pick against Arizona. First, they're an awful team coming off a big win. They could be due for a letdown. Second, they can't stop the run, and Carolina can still move the ball on the ground. Sure, Jimmy Clausen offers no passing threat, but if the Panthers can line up and run the ball with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, they won't need to pass much. Third, it's a 1:00 game for a western team: always a bad sign. Finally, Arizona's rookie QB John Skelton, who was barely needed last week, has a week of game film on him now. I'll look like an idiot picking a one-win team if they lose, but Arizona stinks.
Carolina 24, Arizona 13

Saints +2.5 over Ravens
New Orleans is peaking right now. They're finally firing on all cylinders offensively, and now Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush are both back. The Ravens' defense is not what it once was, and nearly choking to Houston is just another example. The defense was gassed last game. If there are any lingering effects, the Saints' speed will make the Ravens pay, particularly in the air. Meanwhile, the Ravens' offense hasn't been that good all year. The running game hasn't been as good as advertised, and the passing game has been inconsistent. The Saints' speed on defense will give the Ravens' offensive tackles fits. This should be a good game, but New Orleans is quite simply the better team, and they're playing at a much higher level right now.
New Orleans 31, Baltimore 24

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jets embarrass selves in 10-6 loss to Miami Dolphins

On a grey, dreary day in the Meadowlands, the Jets lost their second straight divisional game, 10-6 to the Miami Dolphins.

The question all week was how the Jets would respond to last week's 45-3 shelacking in New England. While the defense showed up and held the Dolphins to just 131 yards, the offense couldn't manage a touchdown for the second week in a row. In all four losses this season, the Jets didn't score a touchdown. Keep that in mind for next week when you read keys to the game. The Jets are undefeated when they score a touchdown.

The problems on offense started with the quarterback, but the blame must be spread everywhere. In the first three drives, Sanchez didn't manage a single first down and turned the ball over twice. Miami capitalized with 10 points, which turned out to be all they needed.

But like the Green Bay game, it was impossible to know that at that point. Sanchez was off, showing very little confidence and rushing a lot of throws. However, he got no help. The running game averaged 2.8 yards-per-carry, as neither LaDainian Tomlinson nor Shonn Greene could get anything going. Santonio Holmes dropped a wide open touchdown pass in the 2nd quarter, Jerricho Cotchery had a bad drop late in the game, and there were other plays that could have been made to help Sanchez out. The rainy conditions clearly did not help out either group.

The offensive line also didn't block very well. Down the stretch, Cameron Wake was a terror. Sanchez fumbled three times, and was sacked six times. The runningbacks had no holes to run through either. This was an all-around below average game from this highly touted unit.

And the coaching and playcalling were just as bad as the players. If you followed my Twitter (@MackNova) during the game, you'll notice I was not pleased with Brian Schottenheimer. Now, he certainly had his hands tied with both a struggling running game and quarterback, but he was simply way too predictable. 18 of the first 25 first downs (18/29 overall) were running plays. And on third down, the Jets threw the ball 20 out of 21 times with the only run coming on a 3rd-and-1. I'm not calling for the Paul Hackett offense to return. But mix it up a little bit! Throw the ball a little more on 1st down. Run a draw play once in a while. Run the ball out of shotgun once in a while. I can't recall the Jets running out of shotgun in a long time.

Sanchez then is forced to make highly pressurized plays for half of his throws. He should be throwing more on 1st and 2nd down, and maybe a little less on 3rd down. Especially when the Jets are in that grey area of field position between the opposing 35 and midfield where the Jets could be in four-down territory. The Jets need to try to run the ball against nickel and dime formations and possibly break some bigger runs when the defense isn't expecting it. Schottenheimer is just way too predictable of a playcaller, and in five years, this offense has never been very good. I'd be quite alright with a change after the season.

Cotchery was actually the primary target for Sanchez today with 5 catches on 12 targets. Holmes was thrown to 9 times, but only came down with 2 catches. He made them count, with 57 yards, but he left a number of plays on the field, including the dropped touchdown pass. However, the least efficient receiver on the day was Dustin Keller, who caught just 3 passes on 12 targets. After scoring 2 touchdowns against Miami earlier in the season, the Dolphins clearly tried to take him out of the game, and they did a great job. Braylon Edwards was a complete non-factor, catching 1 of 2 balls thrown his way for 17 yards. Greene, Tomlinson, and Joe McKnight combined for 6 catches for 39 yards.

Virtually all those players can be considered guys who can make big plays. Yet, the Jets had one play over 20 yards all game, on a 42-yard diving grab by Holmes in the 4th quarter. There is no reason this offense, even with Sanchez playing spottily, should not score a touchdown in back-to-back games. 

As for the defense, it actually played very well. After last week's dose of humble pie, they came out hungry, completely shutting down the Dolphins after the 1st quarter. Chad Henne had just 55 yards passing, but his touchdown pass was a major difference. For some reason, Bart Scott was lined up opposite Brandon Marshall in the slot with Eric Smith on top of him. Scott gave a good bump at the line, but Marshall quickly recovered, got open, and Henne hit him for the easy touchdown.

But you can't blame them for the loss. Virtually everyone played well, with Sione Pouha, Bart Scott, David Harris, Calvin Pace, Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Shaun Ellis, and Brodney Pool all making big plays.

It was the 2nd year in a row, the Jets more than doubled the Dolphins' yardage total but couldn't beat them at the Meadowlands. This year's yardage disparity (280-131) was nowhere near last year's (378-104), but it's still pretty amazing.

The unsung hero of this game was Miami punter Brandon Fields, who bombed 10 punts for a 56.4 yard average. Even when the Jets were forcing three-and-outs, Fields would switch field position every time with his booming kicks.

While the offense's ineptitude was pretty embarrassing, it wasn't nearly as disgusting as what strength and conditioning coach Sal Alosi did. On a punt, while Nolan Carroll was running out of bounds out the sideline, Alosi stuck his knee out and tripped Carroll. That puts a black eye on a franchise that has already given the rest of the NFL a reason to hate them. That was a classless move. Alosi immediately apologized for it, but he's going to face further punishment, either from the team or by the NFL. It wasn't completely blatant, but it was enough where he'll be lucky if he keeps his job.

The Jets really could not look worse right now. After all the preseason talk, the 9-2 start was a good way to quiet the haters. But scoring 9 points in two divisional games is a good way to become a punchline, especially the brash way the Jets have acted at times. Alosi's trip could not have come at a worse time, as now the Jets appear like classless losers.

Now, the Jets have to be careful not to let this season spiral out of control. With road games coming up against Pittsburgh and Chicago, it will be very dangerous. The week 17 home game against Buffalo should be enough to put the Jets in the playoffs, if they can win it, but they obviously don't want to go on a four game losing streak this late in the season.

The defense ran into a buzzsaw in the Patriots, as the Bears found out Sunday. This was more indicative of how good they can be, and it's because of this defense that the Jets should at least be in every other game this season. But the offense is in its worst slump of the season. There is no identity, the quarterback is struggling, and two of the best defenses in the NFL are on deck. Sanchez needs to play better immediately because the best way to beat both the Steelers and the Bears is by passing the ball.

The defense will prevent this season from collapsing into a free fall. But it's not good enough to carry them to the Super Bowl. The offense must pick it up not just to give the Jets any hope of reaching their lofty preseason goals, but to avoid a four game losing streak against opponents whom they will be underdogs against.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Week 14 NFL Picks

Wow, was last week ugly, both for the Jets and for my picks. 0-2-1 doesn't look as bad as 45-3, but both amounted for the same amount of wins. I'm now 19-15-2, trying to avoid an epic collapse back towards .500. Time for a bounceback week!

Bengals +9.5 over Steelers
Contrary to popular belief, the Bengals have not quit. They aren't very good, but they're still trying. And in a rivalry game, look for the Bengals to put out another good effort to try and halt their nine game winning streak. There's plenty of motivation: Carson Palmer want to keep their jobs, Terrell Owens and Marvin Lewis want to earn jobs elsewhere, and Chad Ochocinco wants to remain relevant. Pittsburgh is coming off a massive win against Baltimore, so they're in a letdown spot. They should win at home, but the Steelers aren't good enough in the trenches on offense to make this a blowout.
Steelers 20, Bengals 17

Cowboys +3.5 over Eagles
Dallas has its swagger back. For four weeks, the Cowboys have played like one of the best teams in the NFC. Philadelphia is one of the best teams in the NFC, but giving more than a field goal on the road to a divisional rival playing as well as Dallas is right now is risky business. Dez Bryant is out, but so are Winston Justice and Asante Samuel for Philadelphia. But where Dallas will make its mark is by running the football. Tashard Choice has infused life into a previously dormant running game, and he and Felix Jones will give the Cowboys a big boost. This is a coinflip game, and in that case, I'll take over a field goal with the home team.
Cowboys 28, Eagles 27

Packers -6.5 over Lions
Drew Stanton, folks. Sure, he played well against a good defense in Chicago. But they had very little gamefilm on Drew Stanton. The Packers just saw him start last week, and their opportunistic pass defense should be able to make some plays. Green Bay's offense will be able to throw the ball on the Lions, and then Stanton will throw some interceptions trying to catch up. This could be a sweat heading into halftime, but like the Thanksgiving game against the Patriots, this should end up as a double digit win.
Packers 31, Lions 20

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Jets vs Dolphins Preview

Miami Dolphins at New York Jets
Sunday December 12, 2010, 4:15
New Meadowlands Stadium
Line: Jets -5.5

After one of the most disastrous losses in Jets history, Gang Green has a chance to regain its swagger in a home game against its other primary rival: the Miami Dolphins. No matter what the Jets say in the media, their confidence must be a little shaken, so winning this game is a must. With back-to-back road games against Pittsburgh and Chicago on deck, the Jets must be careful to prevent Monday's shelacking from being the start of a free-fall. That's what happened in 1986 after the Jets lost in week 13, 45-3 to Miami. The Jets probably need to win one more game to make the playoffs. Winning this game against a rival and possibly clinching a playoff berth would make a lot of people forget about last week's debacle. But Miami never makes it easy for the Jets, as these two teams usually play close games. The Dolphins are coming off a disappointing loss to Cleveland, so both teams will be looking to get back on track on what appears to be a very wet field on Sunday.

When the Dolphins have the ball...
Miami has been a bit of a mess offensively this year. Three different quarterbacks have made starts this year. Chad Henne is back after being benched a month ago, but he still has yet to be very effective. However, against the Jets, Henne has had some of the best games of his career. Even Jets' defensive coordinator Mike Pettine agrees, saying bluntly "It seems like he struggles against everybody but us."

Henne has a 101.7 QB rating in three games against the Jets, his highest against any team. That includes a touchdown-interception ratio of 5-1. However, Henne has clearly regressed from last season, and in the first matchup between these two teams this year, Darrelle Revis did not play. Revis is healthy and has been dominant. Brandon Marshall is the obvious one-on-one matchup for Revis this week after he put up 166 yards in the first game. Marshall missed the last two weeks with a hamstring injury but is expected to return this week. Don't expect him to do much on Revis Island though. Henne will be forced to spread the ball around to Davone Bess, his tight ends, and his runningbacks. Henne has thrown an interception in 9 games in a row, including his third three interception performance last week against Cleveland. While the Jets don't create a lot of interceptions, they could have some opportunities Sunday.

Miami's running game is also not what it used to be. They average just 3.8 yards-per-carry, and neither Ronnie Brown nor Ricky Williams have posted a 100 yard game all season. They also don't get any big plays out of the running game, with just four carries over 20 yards all season and a league worst five rushing touchdowns. The Jets' run defense has been phenomenal all season long, so don't expect the Dolphins to get on track this week.

With the weather looking ugly, expect the Jets to get back on track defensively. New England, with Tom Brady spreading the ball around all over the field, was not a good matchup for the Jets. Miami, with a turnover-prone quarterback, a poor running game, and a clear number one receiver that they want to get the ball to, should be the perfect antidote for the Jets' defense.

When the Jets have the ball...
The ineptitude of the Jets' defense last week was matched by the lack of production by the offense. Mark Sanchez is coming off back-to-back below average performances, but just as Henne is typically solid against the Jets, Sanchez has been great against the Dolphins with a 103.3 quarterback rating and a 6-0 touchdown-interception ratio in his three games against Miami.

However, Sanchez has a lot to prove after last week's performance. He wasn't terrible, but he certainly wasn't good. This will be another cold-weather game, which Sanchez is inexperienced in. Miami's defense is also very solid, much higher ranked than the Patriots of last week. In fact the Dolphins only allow 201 yards-per-game through the air, 4th best in the NFL. But in per-play stats, Miami is pretty average, allowing 6.9 yards-per-attempt. They do have 29 sacks, including 12 by Cameron Wake, who has turned himself into one of the premier edge pass rushers in the NFL. The Dolphins sorely need him to get in Sanchez's head and make some big plays. Normally, he'll be lined up against D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a premier pass blocker. Look for the Dolphins to switch Wake around a little bit and try to get him matched up against Damien Woody, who isn't nearly as quick as Ferguson up front.

Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Dustin Keller will be the primary options. Holmes has been a major asset to this offense, but look for Edwards to have the bigger game. Vontae Davis will be matched up more against Holmes, leaving Edwards matched up against the less talented Sean Smith. Smith has size, but Edwards has had a lot of success against the Dolphins in his short Jets' career, and he should be able to make some plays down the field. Keller had two touchdowns in the first meeting, but he hasn't posted over 60 yards in a game since week 6, so it remains to be seen if the Jets get him as involved as they should.

As bad as the offense looked last week, you can't blame the running game. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson combined for 23 carries for 111 yards last week. Miami has a better run defense than New England, but the Jets will still try to establish the run first, especially given the weather conditions. With the field likely wet, look for Greene to play a bigger role Sunday. His north-south style is perfect for December football games like this. The Dolphins' run defense contains a lot of big bodies, particularly Randy Starks along the defensive line, so the Jets could have a tough time dominating the trenches. But it's imperative the Jets create easy third down situations for Sanchez and the passing game.

Two wild cards for this game are kicker Nick Folk and receiver Brad Smith. Folk has struggled as of late, and any bad game could be his last in green and white. On a slippery, possibly windy day, Folk could be a major headache for the Jets. As for Smith, the Jets love to get him the ball a number of different ways. And while the Dolphins don't use the Wildcat as much as they used to, look for the Jets to use Smith to show that they can still out-Wildcat the Dolphins. It's also a way to get the ball in the hands of a playmaker without risking Sanchez throwing it.

Coming back home is not necessarily a great thing for the Jets. Miami is 5-1 on the road this season, their only loss coming against Baltimore. And in the first matchup, the Dolphins actually outgained the Jets 436-402. However, the biggest reason behind that was Brandon Marshall. With Marshall's lingering hamstring injury, and the return of Darrelle Revis to the lineup, Marshall should be all but taken out of the game as long as Revis is matched up against him. The Dolphins don't have many other playmakers on offense, and Henne can't take advantage of mismatches the way Brady could. If the Jets' offense can get back on track, the Jets should be able to win this game. But as badly as Jets fans want a dominant victory, they'll probably just have to settle for a tight win in a low-scoring divisional slugfest.
Jets 17, Dolphins 13

Monday, December 6, 2010

Patriots embarrass Jets on national television

This was it. The game of the year. The game that separated the men from the boys. The game that decided the division and all but finalized the AFC playoff picture.

And the Jets could not have been any flatter.

The Jets' vaunted defense was torched time and time again. The offense couldn't get out of its own way. It was a disaster from the start. The Patriots took a 17-0 lead after the 1st quarter, and the Jets never offered any resistance the rest of the way, eventually falling 45-3.

It was a beatdown in every sense of the word. This was Tom Brady and Bill Bellichick re-asserting their dominance in the AFC East. This was Rex Ryan and the Jets getting dominated like they never have in the Ryan/Sanchez era. Usually, the Jets show up. Even in the games they lose, there a couple plays you can look at that went the other team's way and get some hope out of that.

Not tonight.

Other than moderate success running the football, the Jets were thoroughly dominated and embarrassed. For all the talk the Jets do, they probably had this coming, but nobody could have predicted this much of a laugher.

Rex Ryan coached the worst game of his career. He threw an ill-advised challenge flag on the first drive of the game to try to get the spot corrected. He was right that the ball should have been a half yard further, but the refs didn't even give the Jets that. Then when Brandon Tate had a questionable touchdown later, Rex didn't throw the challenge flag. It probably wouldn't have been overturned, but that would be the much better time to use it.

Defensively, Tom Brady dissected the Jets' defense, making them look utterly helpless to stop Brady and the Patriots. Brady finished with four touchdown passes on the game. The Jets actually got three sacks, but other than that, Brady had all day to throw. He did a brilliant job moving around the pocket and exploiting everyone on the Jets' defense other than Darrelle Revis. Antonio Cromartie couldn't cover Deion Branch. Eric Smith couldn't cover Rob Gronkowski. Nobody could cover Danny Woodhead. Drew Coleman couldn't cover anyone.

The Patriots put up 24 points in the first half and another 21 in the 2nd half. All in all, the Patriots scored six touchdowns, embarrassing a Jets' defense which has been known for talking a lot of trash. Instead, the Jets have a lot of humble pie to eat.

The Jets did nothing right. The defense couldn't tackle. Smith had an awful pass interference penalty to set up the Patriots' first touchdown. They couldn't cover as receivers were open all day. And they couldn't get much pressure on Brady, who showed more mobility than usual this game.

And that's just the defense! The offense was just as bad as the defense. Sanchez had one of the worst games of his career, missing receivers all game long. Brian Schottenheimer called an unimaginative gameplan, and as usual, the sum of all the Jets' parts did not equal what it should. Against the 32nd ranked pass defense, the Jets couldn't get receivers open, couldn't make key catches, and couldn't make any throws. It was an appalling performance in the biggest game of the season. There's absolutely no reason the Jets shouldn't score a single touchdown against the Patriots' defense. None. Yet that's exactly what happened.

The funny thing is the Jets actually ran the ball pretty well. Greene and Tomlinson both averaged over 4.5 yards-per-carry. But the Jets were out of the game so early they had to abandon it quickly. Heck, even when they were still in the game, the Jets didn't run the ball enough.

It's inexcusable to lose 45-3 in any game. It's even more inexcusable to lose it to your biggest rival on national television when you've had 11 days to prepare. This game was an embarrassment from the moment the game started, and every time you thought the Jets could salvage some dignity, the Patriots wouldn't let them. The Jets were outclassed, outcoached, and outplayed.

On paper, the Jets looked like the better team, with New England having a better coach and quarterback. Belichick and Brady were the difference in this one. They came out with a gameplan and executed it to perfection. The Jets looked sloppy and unprepared from the get-go.

The sky isn't completely falling, as the Jets are 9-3 and all but assured of a playoff spot. But now the Patriots have a stranglehold in the AFC East, and the Jets would need a miracle to get a bye week and some home games in the playoffs. Then again, the way the Jets play with extra time to prepare, maybe that's a good thing.

Jets vs Patriots Preview

New York Jets (9-2) at New England Patriots (9-2)
December 6, 2010, 8:30 PM
Gillette Stadium

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

Sunday, December 5, 2010

NFL Picks - Week 13

A 2-1 last week gets me back on the right track. I now sit at 19-13-1 on the year. Unless I collapse in the last 5 weeks, a winning season is definitely in sight. My goal of 30 wins will not be easy, but handicapping football games never is! I like these picks a lot this week, and I'm hoping to get another winning week here, maybe even a sweep!

Bills +5.5 over Vikings
Buffalo is simply playing a lot better right now than Minnesota. With Percy Harvin not playing, the Vikings' offense is now a lot less explosive than it otherwise would be. Steve Johnson has become a big-time receiver, and after last week's disappointing performance, look for him to have a big bounceback week. Ryan Fitzpatrick has played well this year, and 5.5 points is simply too much for a spotty Vikings team to give the Bills.
Bills 24, Vikings 22

Titans -2.5 over Jaguars
Tennessee has struggled of late, but this is an overreaction to last week's home shutout loss. Rusty Smith won't be starting this week, it'll be Kerry Collins. Jacksonville is lucky to be where they are with a Hail Mary victory and another win on a 58-yard field goal. The Titans need this game, and in a cold weather game in Tennessee, a Jacksonville team used to warm weather just won't have enough weapons to keep up with the Titans.
Titans 24, Jaguars 17

Bears -4 over Lions
I usually like the Lions as home underdogs, but not with Drew Stanton at quarterback. Stanton is simply not an NFL quarterback, and the Bears defense will feast on him. As long as Ndamukong Suh doesn't absolutely destroy the Bears' interior line, Jay Cutler should be able to make some big plays down the field which Stanton won't be able to make nearly as well. The Bears have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and it will shut down the Lions offense today.
Bears 27, Lions 16

Friday, December 3, 2010

Leonhard out for the season after collision in practice

The Jets' defense suffered a major blow today as safety Jim Leonhard will miss Monday's game against New England and probably more. He injured his shin in a collision during practice with WR Patrick Turner. There's no word on how long he will be out, but as the Jets' on-field defensive playcaller, starting safety, and primary punt returner, this is a big loss.

In his place, both Brodney Pool and Eric Smith will start at safety. Look for Smith or LB David Harris to make the playcalls in Leonhard's place.

However, don't expect Kyle Wilson to return punts. Mike Westhoff says he's been disappointed with the rookie returning punts. Instead, look for Jerricho Cotchery, Antonio Cromartie, or Santonio Holmes to return punts. In such a big game, the Jets are more likely to use one of their stars at punt returner because they could use any edge they can get.

But make no mistake about it, Leonhard's injury is a big blow to a secondary that had already had its fair share of communication issues this season.

UPDATE: The Daily News Reports that Leonhard is out for the season. The "severe shin injury" has now turned into a broken tibia, also known as a broken leg.