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Bruising Jets will present Patriots with challenges

Journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14), a Harvard alum, has led the Jets to a 4-1 record.Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

The Patriots need to take a little extra care of their bodies this week — hit the cold tub for a few extra minutes, get that extra body massage, drink plenty of water, and so on. Sunday’s game against the Jets is going to be a brawl.

The Patriots haven’t faced a team this season as physically imposing as the Jets, who will bring a surprising 4-1 record to Foxborough. Their defense is downright nasty, with the best line in the game, recently bolstered by the return of Sheldon Richardson from a four-game suspension. And they play a physical brand of offensive football, with running back Chris Ivory using his body as a battering ram and receiver Brandon Marshall using his 6-foot-4-inch frame to drag defenders up and down the field.


Add in the fact that this is a crucial division game, with the winner grabbing a hold on first place in the AFC East, and the Patriots can expect to absorb some extra bruises. The Jets were 4-12 last year, but they lost to the Patriots by only 1 and 2 points in their matchups, and this one should be equally tough.

A lot of the faces are the same — including the return of that Darrelle Revis fellow — but these aren’t the same old Jets, with soft-spoken Todd Bowles replacing Rex Ryan as head coach, Chan Gailey now running the offense, and journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick taking the reins under center.

To get a better handle on the challenges the Jets present, we watched the film of their 34-20 win over Washington last Sunday:


Obviously, the discussion centers around Fitzpatrick, the Harvard graduate now in his 11th NFL season but with his fourth team in four years. Fitzpatrick won the job by default when Geno Smith’s jaw was broken by a teammate in training camp, but he has played fairly well, completing 62.6 percent of his passes while tossing nine touchdowns in five games.


The Jets keep it very simple and manageable for Fitzpatrick, having him throw short passes almost exclusively: quick slants, screens, play-action rollouts, and check-downs.

He’ll go deep once or twice a game, but he’s an erratic passer, having also thrown seven interceptions.

The Jets put Fitzpatrick in the pistol and shotgun the majority of the time, but will definitely put him under center and call some play-action, bootlegs, and screens.

Fitzpatrick hasn’t faced the Patriots since 2012 when he was with the Bills. In seven career games against New England, Fitzpatrick is 1-6 with 13 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions. The Patriots need to put the game in Fitzpatrick’s hands, and make him beat them through the air. Fitzpatrick is 3-0 this year when attempting fewer than 30 passes, and the one time he threw a lot — 58 times against the Eagles — the Jets lost, 24-17.

I imagine the Patriots will put the game in Fitzpatrick’s hands by loading up the box to stop the run. Ivory is the NFL’s No. 3 rusher with 460 yards and four touchdowns (in just five games), and he is a load to bring down, at 6 feet and 222 pounds. In his past two games (with a bye in between), Ivory ran 29 times for 166 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins and 20 times for 146 yards and a touchdown against Washington.


The Jets love running the toss sweep to Ivory, and against Washington he ripped off runs of 54 and 32 yards and a 24-yard screen pass. The Jets also mix it up with Bilal Powell, more of the pass-catching back, and Zac Stacy.

The Jets have a couple of talented receivers, as Marshall and Eric Decker have four touchdowns each. Marshall has 37 catches for 511 yards in his first season with the Jets, and he has the height and physicality to present matchup problems.

The two had some ball protection issues last Sunday, each losing a fumble and Decker adding a couple of drops. Marshall also is a very emotional player and has a tendency to lose his composure if things don’t go his way early.

No. 3 receiver Quincy Enunwa just received a four-game suspension for an offseason arrest, meaning speedster Jeremy Kerley (6 catches, 33 yards) should get more playing time.

The Jets get no production out of their tight ends. They have two catches for 10 yards from the entire position group this year, all from Jeff Cumberland. Kellen Davis played more than Cumberland against Washington, but at 6-7 and 265, he’s more of a sixth offensive lineman. He does not have a catch in five games.

The Jets’ best position groupings have been with three receivers, or with two receivers and fullback Tommy Bohanon.

The most impressive aspect of the Jets this year is the way they have protected Fitzpatrick. They have allowed a league-low two sacks in five games (the next team is the Bengals with six), with center Nick Mangold and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson anchoring the line.


In addition to keeping Fitzpatrick clean, the offensive line has helped the Jets become the league’s No. 1 rushing team, averaging 146 yards per game.

The Patriots should focus on stacking the box, stopping the run, and disguising their pass rush with zone blitzes to goad Fitzpatrick into mistakes. He certainly is capable of making them.


The defense has been dominant across the board: No. 1 in the NFL in yards per game (269.2) and points per game (15.0), and No. 2 in pass defense and No. 2 in run defense, averaging a stingy 3.5 yards per carry.

And they have a better turnover differential than the Patriots (plus-5 compared with plus-4) because their defense has created a whopping 15 turnovers in five games, third-most in the league.

They play more four-man fronts and more attacking, one-gap defense under Bowles, formerly the defensive coordinator in Arizona, and they could be a real handful for the Patriots offensive line, which is dealing with several injuries in addition to having three rookies as key contributors.

Surprisingly, the Jets have generated only eight sacks through five games. But they are dominant up front, with Muhammad Wilkerson (four sacks), Richardson, Damon Harrison, and newcomer Leonard Williams, the No. 6 overall draft pick who only has 0.5 sacks this year but played 90 percent of snaps last week.


Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace can still bring pressure from the edge, while inside linebacker David Harris is still a productive run stopper at 31.

The secondary has created a lot of turnovers this year, and has the names we all remember, but it might actually be the weak spot of the defense.

Revis, 30, is having a good season with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries, but I’m not sure that he’s Revis Island anymore. Washington receiver Pierre Garcon embarrassed him badly for a touchdown on Sunday, breaking Revis’s ankles on an inside slant pass for an easy score.

Antonio Cromartie is a big, physical, press-man cornerback, but he’s no longer the same player, either, at age 31. Both of these cornerbacks look like bad matchups for the Patriots’ two small, shifty receivers, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Slot cornerback Buster Skrine had a concussion last week, and if he’s not available to cover Edelman, the Jets could be in real trouble. I don’t think Revis has the quickness to keep up with Edelman.

The slippery Dion Lewis also could feast on Demario Davis, who has had trouble covering speedy running backs. And they’re going to have to bracket Rob Gronkowski with a linebacker underneath and free safety Marcus Gilchrist over the top.

The Jets play more zone coverage than you’d think, even though they brought Revis back, and they might have to play a lot of zone this Sunday because their one-on-one matchups aren’t great. And they will need to get consistent pressure on Tom Brady with three and four pass rushers so they can drop seven and eight into coverage, as the Colts and Cowboys did the last two weeks.

Special teams

This is one area in which the Patriots might be able to thrive. The Jets’ punt coverage unit has been bad all year, and they had a punt blocked for a touchdown last Sunday when they had only 10 men on the field.

Kicker Nick Folk doesn’t have the strongest leg, missing short on a 49-yard field goal attempt.

The Jets haven’t tried any surprise onside kicks or fake punts this year, but the Patriots always have to be ready for teams to pull out all the stops against them.

Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.