If the Patriots are going to clinch the AFC No. 1 seed this weekend, the NFL schedule makers are certainly going to make them earn it.
Sunday’s matchup is about as tough as it gets for the 12-2 Patriots — on the road against a hot Jets team that has won four straight games and almost knocked off the Patriots at Gillette Stadium back in October in a 30-23 game.
The Patriots also will enter this one significantly shorthanded on the injury front, with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Devin McCourty, and Dont’a Hightower questionable at best, on top of Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, and LeGarrette Blount, who already are on injured reserve.
The Patriots still have Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and one of the NFL’s best defenses, even without Hightower and McCourty. But the Jets gave the Patriots everything they could handle in Week 7, and should give them another tight, hard-fought game at MetLife Stadium.
To get a feel for what to expect from the Jets, we reviewed our game notes from the Patriots’ win in October, and watched the coaches’ film from the Jets’ 19-16 win over the Cowboys last week.
The Jets offense has woken up over this current four-game winning streak over the Dolphins, Giants, Titans, and Cowboys, averaging 27.5 points and 421 yards per game. The key, of course, has been quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ability to protect the football.
Fitzpatrick has 10 touchdown passes and just one interception in the streak, and the Jets are plus-6 in turnover differential. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey deserves a lot of credit for reining in Fitzpatrick and creating a surprisingly efficient unit that is 11th in the NFL in points per game (24.6) and 10th in total offense.
The Jets are relatively healthy, and they are who we remember them to be. They like to pound the rock with human battering ram Chris Ivory (951 yards, 7 rushing touchdowns), and they rely heavily on two receivers: Brandon Marshall (93 catches, 1,261 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Eric Decker (72 catches, 930 yards, 10 touchdowns).
Ivory, Marshall, and Decker have combined for 29 of the Jets’ 39 offensive touchdowns.
The Patriots used safety Patrick Chung as an extra defender in the box in the first matchup to stop the run, and Ivory was held to 41 yards on 17 carries. Zac Stacy, who had seven carries for 19 yards, is out for the season because of a fractured ankle. Now the Jets rotate Bilal Powell in on third downs, while former Patriot Stevan Ridley had seven snaps last week and has just 25 rushing yards in seven games.
In the last matchup, the Patriots put Malcolm Butler on an island against Decker and double-teamed Marshall with Logan Ryan and McCourty. Decker caught 6 of 12 targets for 94 yards, but Marshall had just four catches on seven targets for 67 yards, and had a crucial drop in the end zone in the fourth quarter. No one else on offense had more than three catches or 36 yards.
I would expect the Patriots to focus most of their attention on stopping Marshall and Ivory again, with Duron Harmon in McCourty’s role.
The Jets get very little offensive production out of tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Davis, and used four receivers heavily last week, with Kenbrell Thompkins playing 70 percent of snaps and Quincy Enunwa playing 68 percent. The two combined for six catches for 99 yards against Dallas and will likely see plenty of one-on-one coverage against Leonard Johnson and Justin Coleman.
The Jets’ offensive line is strong from center to left tackle, with left guard James Carpenter snubbed of a Pro Bowl berth and D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold solid as always. But right tackle Breno Giacomini and right guard Brian Winters, subbing for an injured Willie Colon, are weak links. The two struggled against a stout Cowboys line last week, and the Patriots can attack them with stunts and zone blitzes from Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard (who didn’t play in the first game), Jamie Collins, and Jerod Mayo.
The Patriots gave up 23 points and 372 yards in the first matchup, while creating only one turnover and sacking Fitzpatrick twice. The Patriots could really use a few turnovers and maybe even a touchdown from their defense to take the pressure off the offense.
Last week’s game is tough to evaluate because the Cowboys offense was so bad with Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore. The Jets simply overwhelmed the Cowboys with four interceptions, five tackles for losses, and six quarterback hits.
But this is still the Jets defense we all know and love: That same 3-4 scheme with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Damon Harrison up front, Calvin Pace rushing from the edge, David Harris and Demario Davis at linebacker, and Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie playing press-man coverage.
Todd Bowles dials up the blitz as much as any coach in the NFL; in both the Patriots and Cowboys games, Bowles called mostly vanilla defenses early in the game and got more creative and complex with his blitzes as the game wore on. And their defense ranks in the top 10 as usual — eighth in points allowed (19.4 per game) and fifth in total defense.
Harris is questionable because of a back injury, but otherwise the Jets are about as healthy as can be for Week 16.
The Jets led the Patriots, 20-16, in the fourth quarter before Brady went off, completing 14 of 17 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter. A key play was a third-and-17 conversion to Edelman against the Jets’ Cover 4 defense. Gronkowski caught 11 of 16 targets for 108 yards and a touchdown, but the Jets also did a good job of dictating the matchups to the Patriots and forcing Gronkowski to stay in to pass protect on nearly a dozen snaps.
Gronk did almost all of his damage after safety Calvin Pryor left with an ankle injury. Free safety Marcus Gilchrist (three interceptions this year) couldn’t cover Gronk, but Pryor is back and healthy again. Second-year slot cornerback Marcus Williams has six interceptions this year, while Revis has four.
The Patriots didn’t have Lewis in the first game, Edelman had a pedestrian five catches for 54 yards, and Brandon LaFell had six drops in his first game back from a foot injury. Gronk’s sidekick that day was Amendola, who had eight catches for 86 yards and one of the fourth-quarter TDs.
The Patriots didn’t even try to run the ball against the Jets’ defensive front, with James White and Blount combining for 1 yard on five carries and Brady dropping back to pass 59 times.
The offensive line had Sebastian Vollmer at left tackle, Cameron Fleming at right tackle, David Andrews at center, Tre Jackson at right guard, and Josh Kline at left guard, but this time the Patriots will have Marcus Cannon and Shaq Mason back in the lineup.
And with Edelman and Amendola both questionable to play, this probably won’t be a great game to have Brady drop back to pass 59 times, with the likes of LaFell, Keshawn Martin, and Leonard Hankerson going up against Revis and Cromartie.
The Patriots will probably need to run the ball more this time, and they now have three downhill power running backs: Stephen Jackson (240 pounds), Joey Iosefa (245 pounds), and Brandon Bolden (220 pounds). White will also be a key piece in the passing game out of the backfield, and the Patriots have to like his matchup against Davis.
The Jets successfully converted an onside kick against the Patriots in the first matchup, and Cromartie almost blocked one of Stephen Gostkowski’s extra points. The Patriots have committed a turnover on special teams in each of the last four games, so they have a lot to clean up against the Jets. On the flip side, the Jets have surrendered two punt-return touchdowns this year, and kicker Randy Bullock hasn’t made a kick of 50-plus yards.