The game everyone has been waiting to see finally arrives on Monday.
The New England Patriots are looking to avenge their Week 2 loss to the New York Jets when they host them in Foxboro. At 9-2, both teams currently remain tied with the Atlanta Falcons for best record in the NFL, and the winner of this game becomes the heavy favorite for the No. 1 seed in the AFC come playoff time.
Much has changed for each side since the Week 2 contest at New Meadowlands Stadium. Players have taken on new roles, been lost for the season or, in former Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss‘s case, traded. Twice.
Both teams are coming off Thanksgiving Day victories, so they will be plenty rested. But which team has the edge going into the game? These four matchups could make all the difference once the ball is kicked off.
Mark Sanchez vs. Patriots Secondary
Mark Sanchez had a field day against the Patriots in Week 2. Sanchez completed 21-of-his-30 pass attempts for 220 yards, while throwing three touchdowns to three different receivers and never turning the ball over. Lately though, Sanchez has become a bit turnover prone. After going the first five weeks of the season without throwing a pick, Sanchez has thrown eight of them in the Jets last six contests. He’s yet to put up a goose egg in the interception column since Week 5.
Though they are currently ranked last in passing defense, allowing 288.5 yards per game, the Patriots do sit in fourth place in interceptions with 15. If Sanchez’s carelessness with the ball continues, the Patriots will be able to take advantage and set their offense up in good field position.
Field position will be vital if the Patriots want to win, because the Jets have the third-best total defense, allowing 296.9 yards per game. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has become famous for his eight-minute, 90-yard drives, but only his first two drives against the Jets in their first meeting this season went on for longer than four minutes.
Expect Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to call a similar game for his sophomore quarterback as he did in Week 2. In order to prevent Sanchez from turning it over, the Jets will play conservative with Sanchez and try to offset his currently shaky passing game with the running back tandem of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. If the Patriots are able to apply pressure to Sanchez and force him to turn the ball over, New England will have a great opportunity at winning the game.
Dustin Keller vs. Rob Gronkowski
Both of these tight ends have become favorite end zone targets for Mark Sanchez and Tom Brady. Keller is second on the Jets in receiving touchdowns with five, and the rookie Gronkowski is tied for the Patriots’ team lead with six. Keller and Gronkowski have been main targets for their quarterbacks in the red zone as Keller has had four of his touchdowns come on a play within the area, while Gronkowski has five.
As Mark Sanchez goes, so does Keller though, as he has yet to reach the end zone since Week 4. However, Keller is still a dangerous target for the Patriots’ defense as he is second in receiving yards for the Jets and has remained a Sanchez favorite on third-down plays.
Take note of which defensive players both coaches use to guard the opponent’s tight end. If a linebacker is given consistent man-to-man coverage duty, the running game could open up for either side, and if a safety is used, it leaves the secondary exposed. Keller and Gronkowski will have tremendous impacts on the offensive side of things on Monday as receivers, in addition to their blocking. If either team decides to pass when it is inside the 10-yard line, expect the ball to be heading toward one of them.
Patriots Offensive Line vs. Jets Pass Rush
Despite not having two-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins protecting him for most of the season, Tom Brady has felt quite comfortable in the pocket for New England. He can thank his offensive line for that as he has been sacked 15 times all season. Only the Giants and Colts, with both Eli and Peyton Manning, have done a better job at protecting their quarterbacks. The Patriots’ offensive line, now with Mankins back on Brady’s blind side, will have to continue protecting Brady if they expect to have an effective offense.
The Jets this season have excelled defensively, as they are led by a strong secondary with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, and a solid linebacking core with Bart Scott and David Harris. Relying on a blitz-heavy defensive scheme, the Jets have been able to bring down the quarterback 24 times this season, and limit opponents on average to only 86 rushing yards a game, fourth-best in the NFL.
The Patriots’ offensive line will have to continue to be productive against the Jets’ pressure, as Brady will need as much time as possible to find an open receiver. With Revis and Cromartie likely focusing on Patriots receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch, Brady may have to check down frequently and find Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski more times than Bill Belichick is planning.
Brady threw two of his four interceptions this season against the Jets in Week 2, while being brought down once. The Patriots likely will be better prepared for the various schemes that Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be throwing at Brady this time, however, because even without Moss, the Patriots are averaging 30 points a game since trading for Deion Branch. The offensive line, though, will still need to give Brady supreme protection if the Patriots want to keep the 30-point average from dropping.
Danny Woodhead vs. His Former Team
Danny Woodhead has emerged as a fan favorite and useful weapon out of the Patriots’ backfield. After the season-ending injury to Kevin Faulk and the trade of Laurence Maroney, Woodhead was able to settle in as the number two running back behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Woodhead has been used in a similar manner as Faulk, by being able to run and catch passes out of the backfield, with Woodhead’s versatility earning him more and more carries and throws.
Woodhead, of course, gained fame over the summer as one of the last players cut by the Jets and Ryan. It is a move that Ryan now admits he regrets. At the end of training camp this summer, Ryan chose to keep rookie Joe McKnight over the second-year Woodhead. While many of the personnel moves Ryan, along with Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, has made over the past two seasons have worked out, this decision has been an awful one. McKnight has carried the ball four times for 12 yards all season. Woodhead has gained 574 yards of total offense and has found the end zone four times.
If Woodhead continues to be productive and factors into a Jets defeat, Rex Ryan may not have a quip in his postgame press conference for once.
Expect a much closer contest from what happened in Week 2. Both teams know what is at stake with this game and have proven that they are part of the NFL elite through 12 weeks. A game coming down to the final play is very possible, and whatever team gets the ball last might be the most important matchup of the game.
This contest will live up to the hype and provide a preview for a possible AFC conference or championship game rematch. If the teams do meet again in the postseason, it will be as a rubber match, since the Patriots should be able to squeeze out a 20-17 victory at home.
Nathaniel Lowenthal is a member of NESN’s production team.
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