Welcome to Season 11, Episode 10 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The Patriots have won 13 straight meetings with the Jets, including a 22-17 victory Oct. 30. It’s imperative that they make it 14 straight Sunday if they’re going to have a realistic shot of making the postseason.
Coming out of their bye week, the Patriots would be in the playoffs as the AFC’s seventh seed if — say it in unison — the season ended today.
But it doesn’t, and there are two hard truths about their schedule:
1. The Patriots haven’t beaten a legitimately good team other than the Jets so far. Their four non-NYJ wins have come against the Lions, Browns, Steelers, and Colts, who are a combined 13-23-1.
And 2: It gets daunting from here on out, with a pair of matchups against Josh Allen and the Bills, a Thanksgiving bout with Justin Jefferson and the talented Vikings, one more with the division-leading Air Tua Dolphins, as well as the defending AFC champion Bengals and the Cardinals and Raiders.
And the Patriots best have gotten their rest during the bye week, because Sunday’s game starts a stretch of three games in 12 days. Again: Daunting.
That’s not to say it’s impossible. The Patriots crumbled after the bye last year, winning one of their final five games, including a non-competitive playoff loss to the Bills. This year, they must do the opposite: They must prove they have repaired recurring flaws — plural — on offense.
The offensive linemen need to get in synch, especially against the Jets’ 10th-ranked scoring defense (19.6 points pet game). Mac Jones needs to get in synch with his receivers — or should we say, Matt Patricia needs to call plays in which three receivers are not running routes 25 yards downfield while the quarterback is already under siege. And the defense, which has allowed 18.4 points per game, sixth in the league, just has to keep doing what it’s been doing.
Maybe it’s too much to ask. But maybe it’s not. The Patriots have won two in a row and four of five, even if it doesn’t quite feel that way. But the quality of opponent is getting tougher, and so the quality of the Patriots’ performances has to get better. That must begin Sunday, against a team that would like nothing more than to beat them for the first time since December 2015.
Kick it off, Palardy, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
David Andrews: I’m not sure we necessarily needed the lesson, but we sure did receive it over the past two games in his absence: Andrews, the seventh-year center and one of the Patriots’ captains, is one of the most important and irreplaceable players on this roster.
He missed the first matchup with the Jets and the Colts game because of a concussion suffered on a cheap shot by the Bears’ Mike Pennel in Week 7. Although the Patriots won both games while Andrews was out, his absence was felt in multiple ways as quintessential replacement-level interior lineman James Ferentz was only sporadically up to the task.
Jones was often under siege the past two games, particularly against the Jets, who sacked him six times, including a strip-sack, and hit him another time that led to an interception.
The running game also struggled with Andrews sidelined; the Patriots rushed 62 times for 197 yards — a 3.2 average — over the past two games, with Rhamondre Stevenson having to constantly fight for yardage after early contact.
Rookie left guard Cole Strange clearly missed having Andrews’s guidance and experience to lean on. Strange struggled against Jets star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, allowing a sack, two hurries, committing two penalties, and losing snaps to Isaiah Wynn, who isn’t exactly the most trustworthy lineman himself these days.
After playing 100 percent of the snaps from Weeks 2-6, when Andrews was alongside him, Strange dipped to 85 percent against the Jets, and then just 15 percent two weeks ago against the Colts. He will benefit from Andrews’s return. The whole offense should.
Matthew Judon: One way to characterize Judon’s phenomenal performance this season is to call him efficiently dominant.
In the Patriots’ 26-3 win over the Colts in Week 9, the edge rusher supreme sacked bewildered quarterback Sam Ehlinger three times while registering six tackles and four QB hits. Somehow, he did not win his second AFC Defensive Player of the Week award of the season, with the Ravens’ Justin Houston winning the honor with a 3-tackle, 2½-sack, 1-interception performance against the Saints. Judon’s stat line looks better to me, and he commanded the game while playing just 42 defensive snaps, his second-lowest total of the season. (He played 36 in the 29-0 rout of the Lions in Week 5.)
It is wise for Patriots defensive coaches Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick to deploy him this way. Last season, Judon piled up 12½ sacks before the Week 14 bye; he did not have another for the rest of the season, with injuries, fatigue, and opponents’ prioritization of stopping him conspiring against him. Judon has a league-best 11½ sacks through nine games this season, and a real shot at Hall of Famer Andre Tippett’s franchise record (18½ in 1984) and NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors.
It must be noted, though, that Judon does not have to rack up huge numbers to have a major impact. In the win over the Jets in Week 8, Judon was credited with just two assisted tackles and did not account for a sack for just the second time this season, but he was in Zach Wilson’s face all day, including on the foolish third-quarter throw that became Devin McCourty’s first of two interceptions that afternoon.
Sauce Gardner: Stay away, Mac. If you know what’s good for you, just stay away. The cornerback, the No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft out of Cincinnati, plays with the confidence of a Pro Bowler who has been shutting down elite receivers for years. His height — 6 feet 3 inches — and effortless fluidity remind me a little of Patriots legend Mike Haynes.
Gardner has been nothing short of extraordinary. He leads the NFL in passes defensed (13), has allowed just a 54.9 passer rating when targeted, and has a pair of interceptions, including a clinching pick of Allen in the third quarter of the upset of the Bills two weeks ago.
In the previous Patriots-Jets clash, Jones stayed away from Gardner for the most part, targeting receivers he was covering four times, with a total of 1 yard gained. Gardner was, however, involved in one favorable play for the Patriots in the previous matchup. Hunter Henry bulldozed him into the end zone, opening space for Jakobi Meyers’s third-quarter touchdown catch that gave the Patriots the lead. Clearing out Gardner is about the only way to beat him.
Grievance of the week
Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley was everywhere in the first meeting, making 13 tackles, tied for the most an opponent has had against the Patriots this season. (The Steelers’ Myles Jack also had 13 in Week 2.) Ten of Mosley’s tackles were solo, including one for a loss, and he also had a pass defensed. Spectacular performance, but as it turned out, he was everywhere because he had a pretty good idea of where to go before the play began.
Bill Belichick acknowledged the day after the Colts game that reports that Indianapolis linebacker Shaquille Leonard was calling out the Patriots’ offensive plays were accurate. And Belichick added, almost matter-of-factly, that Mosley had been doing the same the week before. Belichick’s confirmation was a surprise — more than anything, he seemed impressed with Mosley and Leonard for their decoding abilities.
His response somewhat muted what should have been a more embarrassing story. This wasn’t just confirmation that Mosley and Leonard are smart, perceptive players. It’s a confirmation of one of perhaps several ways the offensive coaching staff is letting down Jones and the players.
Prediction, or, no, four teams from the AFC East are not going to make the playoffs
Most of the time, a game’s probable outcome cannot be narrowed down to how a single player performs. But in this matchup of teams who are three weeks removed from facing each other and have similar strengths and flaws, it really does come down to one question and one quarterback: Will Wilson give the football and the game away again?
He was a disaster in the previous meeting, with three interceptions, and this is nothing new when he faces the Patriots. He has two touchdown passes, seven interceptions, and has been sacked seven times in three career games against the Patriots, all losses. He did have moments of success in last month’s meeting — Garrett Wilson had 115 receiving yards, and Tyler Conklin caught a pair of touchdown passes. But at least two of Wilson’s interceptions were inexcusable, and the Jets’ biggest mistake in retrospect was allowing him to throw 41 passes.
The hunch here: Wilson has a short leash, but he still makes one brutal mistake out of habit and his weird overconfidence, and that’s just enough for the Patriots to win a game they have to have. Patriots 17, Jets 16.