In Week 7 I chose the Patriots to wallop the Jets. As it turns out the Patriots won, but only as a result of a last minute regulation comeback and a field goal in overtime to edge the Jets 29-26. And while one could argue that a game being played five weeks later in the New Jersey and without Patriots’ tight end Rob Gronkowski could yield a different result, that seems like an unlikely outcome for two teams that are headed in different directions.
Jets’ Head Coach Rex Ryan seems to understand this, given his very conscious decision to rein in the smack talk this week, to declare Tom Brady a once in a lifetime player, and to defend Bill Belichick’s decision to keep Gronkowski in on a special teams play that resulted in Gronk breaking his arm and missing at least the next three to four weeks. It took the New York media to start the hype, thanking Bill Belichick (in turkey form) for leaving Gronk in. Newsflash to the New York media: no coach selectively pulls players off of special teams in a blowout win, and the play was a fluke. Gronk had a better chance of breaking his arm on a touchdown spike than he did on special teams. As Bill Belichick said on WEEI this week, show me the player that we know is going to get hurt on this play, and we’ll pull him out of the game.
None the less, Gronk is out for this contest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean good news for the Jets. Aaron Hernandez, a healthy scratch for the past couple of games as a result of an abundance of caution, will return. The Jets likely won’t find Hernandez much easier to cover than Gronk, particularly when he is complemented by Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Julian Edelman, and Danny Woodhead. The players may change from week to week, but the offensive assault remains.
In truth, the Jets fired their best shot against the Patriots in Week 7, and they came up short. Don’t expect the Patriots to let them hang around as long this time around. The Jets have tanked since the last match-up, coming out of their funk long enough to beat the Rams last week in St. Louis, but the Rams aided the Jets’ effort by turning the ball over three times, something the Patriots generally do not do. In a battle of turnovers, expect the Patriots to get the best of the contest. A Patriots win would further separate New England from the rest of their divisional foes, and would also likely end any hope of the Jets making the playoffs this season. Finally, a Patriots’ win would be the 200th of Belichick’s career.
Here’s how the game will likely break down:
When the Patriots run
The Patriots running game went to sleep last week against the Colts, in part by design and in part because of a solid effort by the Colts’ defensive front. But the Jets are giving up over 140 rushing yards per game so far this season, and the Patriots are averaging right about the same on offense. The Patriots ran the ball for 131 yards in the first contest, and I expect that Shane Vereen will get more opportunities this week, given how well he performed in Week 7 (8 carries for 49 yards). Expect the Patriots to come in around the 130 yard mark again on Thursday night, as the Patriots are likely to focus on exploiting the Jets’ secondary. Ridley will once again not get close to 100 yards, but should be able to net consistent gains.
When the Patriots pass
The Jets possess the third best pass defense (200.1 ypg) in the league and the Patriots own the fourth best passing offense (289 ypg), so something has to give. Tom Brady had a sub-par performance in Week 7, going 26 for 42 for 259 yards and two touchdowns. Since then Brady has started to look sharper, and the Patriots are likely to run a pass-heavy attack on the Jets. Gronk, Hernandez, Welker and Woodhead all did the damage in the first meeting, and this week Edelman and Lloyd will both get more looks with Gronk sidelined. Antonio Cromartie has the ability to shut down the man he is covering, but he can only cover one at a time. The Patriots will seek to create mismatches against safeties and linebackers and exploit those for consistent chunks of yards. The Jets have probably realized that their new safety tandem of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell is not an answer to shutting down the tight end and slot attack of the Patriots. Look for Brady to be closer to the 300 yard mark on Thursday night. The Jets’ pass rush did sack Brady once in the first meeting, but the Jets will generally have to sell out in order to apply pressure to Brady, which typically results in big Patriots’ gains. Even without Logan Mankins out of the lineup, the Patriots offensive line is more than a match for the Jets’ defensive front.
When the Jets run
Ground and pound is what the Patriots do, not the Jets. The Jets are 15th in rushing with just over 108 yards per game, and the Patriots possess the 10th ranked run defense, giving up 99 yards per game. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes know how to fill running lanes and stuff the run, and Spikes has a knack for jarring the ball loose. Shonn Greene has had one game of over 100 yards this season, but has otherwise looked very pedestrian and is averaging 3.7 yards per carry. He ran for 54 yards in the first meeting and will likely come in somewhere near that number this week. Greene has a habit of putting the ball on the ground, but has not lost any fumbles yet this season; that will be a key factor if the Jets expect to have a chance of winning this game. The bigger threat is Bilal Powell, who gets fewer carries but has greater big play potential. Joe McKnight is an inconsistent runner, but is capable of an occasional big play as well. The Jets ran for 106 yards in the first meeting, and should be close too that number this week as well.
When the Jets pass
This is where we can expect to see the biggest difference between Week 7 and Week 12. In the first meeting Mark Sanchez was accurate, focused and poised (until the last play) while passing for 328 yards and a touchdown. But he also made key mental mistakes that seem to be the unfortunate trademark to his career as an NFL starting quarterback. Jeremy Kerley and Dustin Keller both had big days, each catching seven passes, while Greene caught six passes out of the backfield. The Jets are still likely to rack up yards on Thanksgiving, but not likely to match their Week 7 performance. Aqib Talib is working into the secondary rotation and will likely have safety help when he matches up against the Jets’ receivers, presumably matching up against Kerley. Alfonzo Dennard is turning out to be a seventh round steal in this year’s draft as he has established himself as a solid contributor in the secondary despite having a long way to go in his development. Kyle Arrington has been symptomatic of the struggling secondary, but moving McCourty to safety on a permanent basis will improve the secondary in the long run. The improvement in the secondary seems to be giving Bill Belichick the willingness to blitz more to improve the pass rush, and this will be important with rookie Chandler Jones out of the lineup this week. The Patriots racked up four sacks in the previous meeting. Vince Wilfork is playing like a man possessed, Rob Ninkovich is simply a playmaker, and Hightower and Jermaine Cunningham will likely get opportunities to take shots at Sanchez. Look for Sanchez to be closer to 200 yards this time around, with turnovers coming from quarterback pressure via strip sacks or errant throws.
In the first meeting the Jets surrendered a 104 yard kickoff return by Devin McCourty, though McCourty’s kickoff fumble in the fourth quarter nearly cost the Patriots the contest. The Patriots possess the superior return units, and the Jets have been plagued with special teams problems throughout the season. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots gain the field position advantage through special teams and perhaps pull off another big return. Julian Edelman is a dangerous punt returner.
Which Mark Sanchez shows up this week? The one who throws with 75% accuracy (v. the Rams) or the guy who has thrown with 53.5% accuracy on the year. As the Jets’ media is pointing out, the Jets’ lack first tier starters and solid depth on the roster. Bill Belichick’s team is perfect in the second half of the season going back through 2010, and Belichick is deadly when he gets a second look at an opponent in a season, even a divisional one. The revamped secondary may be the coach’s means for delivering a big headache to Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez on Thursday night. Finally, the Patriots are +20 in turnover differential this season, best in the league, while the Jets are at +1, 6th in the AFC.
It’s entirely possible that the Jets could win Thursday night, and they have the advantages of no Gronk, a home game, and knowing that they gave the Patriots all they could handle in Week 7. But the Patriots are a better team now than they were five weeks ago, whereas the Jets are a team verging on a full-blown meltdown; a meltdown that becomes more likely if the Jets get blown out on Thursday night.
I am not expecting a Patriots’ blowout of the Jets, but do find it more likely than a Jets’ win. More likely we will see the similar script that has played out in recent Patriots’ contests; an early exchange of scores followed by a slow but inexorable assertion of the Patriots’ will in the second and third quarters before closing the game out in the fourth. In this case however, I think Gronk’s absence does help the Jets linger for the better part of three quarters before the Patriots put the issue to rest. Look for mismatches involving Edelman, Welker and Hernandez to allow the Patriots to sustain long scoring drives, while the Patriots defense continues to both give up chunks of yardage and find ways to take the ball away from the opposition, offering up a short field to the offense. Predicted Score: Patriots 30 Jets 17.