With the Patriots on a two-game skid, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned as they head to a place where they haven't won since Rex Ryan took control. With that being said, let's get to your inquiries in this week's mailbag.
Is Sunday a must-win game for the Patriots?
–@AvkarSiv, via Twitter
I'd hate to label anything a must-win game when there are seven left on the schedule, especially when I don't think the Jets are good enough to run the table through the final two months. But it is certainly important because it would give the Patriots the tiebreaker with two head-to-head wins (the next tiebreakers, in order, are division record, record against common opponents and record against AFC opponents, so that wouldn't be sorted out until much later).
Halfway through the regular season, there's a logjam in the playoff race, with nine AFC teams within a game of the Patriots (either ahead in the standings, or behind). It's going to be a tough wild-card race, and this could be a year in which a team could need 11 victories to get into the playoffs, or 10 at the very least. This isn't a do-or-die game for the Patriots, but a loss would reduce their margin for error.
How much of a concern is the health of Tom Brady's elbow?
–@TonyRBranco, via Twitter
Tom Brady wraps his elbow in some sophisticated-looking gear (no, that's not a medical term), but that's nothing new. Plus, he hasn't been listed on the injury report, and the NFL would take great offense to a team that isn't forthcoming with those lists. I'm not going to be naive and say teams don't hide things, but it should at least be taken as a good sign that Brady hasn't been mentioned on the injury report. By the way, when he sat out two practices during the bye week, the team wasn't required to pass out an injury report.
Anyway, Brady has struggled since the bye week, and his inaccuracy against the Giants was surprising at times. So far, the Patriots have proven they struggle tremendously to win when Brady isn't at his best, so the elbow (or shoulder) should be of relative concern.
With the release of Albert Haynesworth, does Shaun Ellis return? Will the Patriots play more man coverage?
–@celticsfan2584, via Twitter
Albert Haynesworth is an interior lineman, and Shaun Ellis has played end, mostly in their four-man fronts, so one isn't really related to the other. However, I have said for the last two weeks that Brandon Deaderick should take over as the starting defensive end opposite of Andre Carter. Or, at the very least, Deaderick has earned a significant amount of playing time with his performance in the last two games. Ellis hasn't met expectations to this point, so he'll probably be used on a rotational basis when he gets back on the field.
As for man coverage, I think that's a no-brainer, and I've believed that since their relaxed zone schemes were torched in Buffalo in Week 3. Obviously, there's going to be a mixture of looks, and even with man, there will be zone elements, especially with the linebackers and safeties. I just think they need to be more aggressive closer to the line, and if that means playing man or more of an underneath zone, then so be it. They're better with those looks.
Can you blame the collapse in defense due to the trading away of Richard Seymour? Take away his pass rush, and the quarterback has all day to throw.
–@Jeremykw, via Twitter
Richard Seymour would obviously help the defense, though he wouldn't be as effective with the Patriots as he has been in Oakland, which employs an attacking, downhill style of attack from the defensive front. Remember, Seymour wasn't exactly great in 2008, and there are reasons to believe that trend would have continued without a change of scenery.
The defense's downfall has been twofold. First, they have lost some awesome talent over the years. Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Ty Warren and others. Some of those situations were out of Bill Belichick's control, like the retirements of Bruschi and Harrison, and I'll even grant him Warren's injury, though some would argue the injury was caused by his willingness to play through pain.
McGinest, Law and Vrabel moved on due to personnel assessments, which is the second layer of the downfall. Obviously, that trio departed with their best years in the rearview mirror, but the other personnel misfires include signing Adalius Thomas and drafting cornerback Darius Butler (second round), linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (third round), cornerback Terrence Wheatley (second round) and linebacker Shawn Crable (third round), among others. Obviously, safety Brandon Meriweather could be lumped in there along with cornerback Leigh Bodden's second contract and the strange decision to cut safety James Sanders. The verdict is still out on Jermaine Cunningham, who has been a healthy scratch for the last two weeks.
Seymour was one piece of the whole equation, and the defense's downfall can't be traced to one guy. There were some excellent players who won Super Bowls for the Patriots, and they've had a very difficult time replacing them.
Let's say Brady and Chad Ochocinco get it together, and the Pats get into playoffs. Do you see Ochocinco being an integral playoff player?
–@rr5rhoads, via Twitter
At this point, that's a big if, but I respect your optimism. If they do get in sync by the end of the season, I'd see no reason why it couldn't continue in the playoffs. That doesn't even have to be about Chad Ochocinco. It would be more about Brady's ability to get the ball to receivers who deserve to get the ball. So, yeah, if it happens, expect some good things from this duo.
Will the Jets trust Mark Sanchez enough to attack weak secondary, or will they continue to use the ground-and-pound that was ineffective against Pats?
–@allisa, via Twitter
There's been a lot of heat on Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and I'm sure that will continue if the Jets can't score this weekend. He can certainly get too conservative, and he'll have to avoid that against the Patriots, who have been very strong against the run. If they don't trust Sanchez to throw the ball Sunday, listen to the calls for Schottenheimer's head in the fallout — unless, of course, Sanchez plays like crap and doesn't deserve the responsibility to throw the ball, which has clearly been the blueprint for opposing offenses this season.
Jeff, how shocked and angry were you when the popcorn was all gone at halftime the other day? Your pal, Mike.
–@NESNmhurley, via Twitter
I was definitely shocked, but the feelings of anger were replaced with relief. There's enough salt on that stuff to dry up Lake Winnipesaukee.
If regular seasons were food, and 2007 was a great prime rib, what would be 2009, 2010 and this year?
–@gravitymonkey, via Twitter
Great question. I'd call 2009 a late-night binge at IHOP — seems like a pretty good idea at the time, but when you wake up and think about it, you just want to block it all out. And let's not even get into the stomachache.
Let's call 2010 a filet mignon, and after you paid the bill, the manager came to your table and offered you a free meal for your next visit. It was great at the time, and you had a good feeling about your next visit.
This season is a tough one. The menu looked great, and there were some tough choices so you started with the appetizer sampler. The wings and potato skins were outstanding, but then you realized the mozzarella sticks weren't cooked and then you dropped a jalapeno popper on your shirt. You're still intrigued about the main course, but you're not sure if there's going to be room for dessert.