Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady combo will provide a test for the Jets Sunday in North Jersey. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Here’s what you have to know when it comes to Sunday’s Patriots-Jets game at MetLife Stadium:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN THE BALL
Don’t expect New England to run the ball that much, as the Jets are still one of the better run defenses in the NFL. New York is fourth in the league when it comes to stopping the run, yielding a stingy 87.5 rushing yards per game. The Jets have allowed more than 100 rushing yards on just five occasions this season, and the Patriots had just 63 when they first met back in October, with Shane Vereen leading the way with 11 carries for 43 yards. (For what it’s worth, that was in the relatively brief window following Stevan Ridley‘s season-ending knee injury against the Bills and the return of LeGarrette Blount from his nine-month odyssey in Western Pennsylvania.) It’s always dangerous to try and predict what the Patriots are going to do when it comes to utilizing their backs. But given the fact that they settled for less than 100 yards on the ground against the Bills, Broncos, Lions and Jets (all top 10 run defenses) and came away with wins in all four of those games, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them run the ball just enough to keep the New York defense honest, but throw to win.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS THE BALL
Not breaking any major news here, but expect tight end Rob Gronkowski to be a sizable part of the game plan. His past career numbers against the Jets (in his last four games against Jets, the big fella has 27 catches on 47 targets for 373 yards and four touchdowns), combined with the fact that New York has struggled mightily to contain tight ends over the course of the season (Football Outsiders ranks them 32nd when it comes to defending tight ends in the passing game this season), are certainly good enough reasons to think that he will play a major role this week against New York. In the last few games where Gronkowski has been good to go, he’s seen a lot of 6-foot-1, 210-pound safety Antonio Allen, and while Allen has done a relatively good job against him — Allen picked off a ball intended for Gronkowski in the first game back for the tight end in 2013, taking it to the house for a pick-six — he still faces a massive challenge in trying to slow Gronkowski, who is the most unguardable option in the league.
If the Jets are going to have a hope of pulling off the upset, they’ll have to demonstrate an ability to get to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on a consistent basis with their pass rush. Given New York’s ability to pressure the passer over the course of the season — and the occasional struggles of the New England offensive line — this is a possibility. The New York pass rush is led by Sheldon Richardson (6.5 sacks) and Muhammad Wilkerson (4.5 sacks). In the first game of the season between the two teams, the Jets were able to sack Brady once (veteran linebacker David Harris got to him) and hit him seven times, with Wilkerson delivering three of those shots on the quarterback. They need to get to him as fast as possible because, as our scout friend noted here, the Jets secondary has struggled throughout the season, and don’t figure to have much of an answer when it comes to slowing Gronkowski. Look for the tight end to have a particular impact in two areas: that classic seam route down the field is always a favorite against the Jets, while he will also have his usual opportunities in the red zone.
(One more thing worth noting — Vereen has almost always managed to pick up at least one sizable gain in the passing game against the Jets each time there’s a New York-New England matchup. He had five catches for 71 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a receiver the first time these two teams matched up earlier in the year.)
WHEN THE JETS RUN THE BALL
Vince Wilfork was really steamed after the October meeting between the two teams, a contest where the Jets rushed for 218 yards, the highest total any team has put on New England this year. “I’m very stingy when it comes to the rush defense,” Wilfork said after the game, a 27-25 win for the Patriots. “That’s the one thing I’m disappointed in [the run defense]. We’ll fix it, we always do and hopefully we can get this thing rolling consistently.” We’ll see if that holds come Sunday against a Jets team that still does a pretty good job running the ball. Chris Ivory (174 carries, 739 yards, 6 touchdowns) and Chris Johnson (135 carries, 613 yards, one touchdown) lead the way for a running game that’s second in the league in rushing yards per game (147.1) and total rushing yards (2,060), and is tied for second with the Saints and Chiefs when it comes to yards per carry (4.7). They’ve had three games this season where they’ve rushed for more than 200 yards, including 218 the last time they played the Patriots and 277 this past Sunday against the Titans.
Two wrinkles to keep an eye on when New York runs the ball: one, the Jets occasional use of the wildcat — Johnson had his longest run of the game last week out of a wildcat, a 37-yarded against the Titans. Two, the use of newcomer Percy Harvin in 3rd and short situations, as he’s a perfect 4-for-4 on converting 3rd and one chances in the running game. Look for him to get the call occasionally if that situation comes up Sunday.
In the end, though, the big battle will come up front — it only makes sense for the Jets to run behind their best run blocker, and that’s center Nick Mangold. (We know that the Jets do most of their running up the middle, and that was true in the October matchup between the two teams.) Mangold and Wilfork have had some terrific battles over the years, and Sunday will likely be another clash between two elite performers.
WHEN THE JETS PASS THE BALL
This is a battle that the Jets want nothing to do with. New York is one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to throwing the ball — they’re last in the league in total passing yards (2,365) and passing yards per game (169), and they’re 31st in completion percentage (56.1) and yards per attempt (5.9). Geno Smith has completed 58 percent of his passes, to go along with 1,957 passing yards, nine touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His first read is usually wide receiver Eric Decker (62 catches, 720 yards, 4 TDs), who leads the team in every major receiving category. After a semi-decent start, rookie tight end Jace Amaro (35 catches, 311 yards, 2 TDs) has trailed off as of late — he’s had just three catches since the start of November, but is still the second-leading pass catcher on the team. Wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (34 catches, 322 yards, 1 TD) and newcomer Percy Harvin (25 catches, 306 yards, 1 TD) have performed well in spurts this season
Looking back on that first game between the two teams this year, we’re still not sure how to explain the level of success that Smith: in one of the finest performances of his career, the young signal-caller was poised and as accurate as he’s ever been against a good defense in a nationally-televised game on the road. He finished by going 20-for-34 for 226 yards and a touchdown and no picks. (By way of comparison, his passer rating that night — 88.6 — was better than the 80.9 posted by Peyton Manning when the Patriots thumped the Broncos in November.) But it wasn’t like he leaned on his run game to help with play-action — according to Pro Football Focus, he was 1-for-3 for nine yards on six play-action opportunities that night. He was just patient, poised and relatively accurate, relying heavily on his running game and making a handful of good decisions at key moments. Ultimately, it would be a shock if he was able to come close to that level of performance a second time around, considering the fact that the Patriots have become one of the best pass defenses in the league since that October contest.
The last time these two teams met, it took a blocked field goal from Chris Jones to let New England to ultimately walk away with the win. It won’t be that dramatic this time around, but given the way they’ve been performing as of late, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England swing the momentum in their favor with an impactful special teams play somewhere along the way. New England has gotten game-changing plays out of its special teams unit over the last several weeks, including last week’s blocked field goal by Jamie Collins and a scoop-and-score style touchdown from Kyle Arrington, as well as the blocked punt the week before against the Chargers by Brandon Bolden. Both Chandler and Chris Jones have blocked field goals this year. And Danny Amendola had a big kick return to get things jump started in the win over the Lions, while Julian Edelman is one of nine punt returners with a touchdown, and his 12.3 yards per return is second best in the NFL.
On the others side, the Jets are probably more competitive than other teams when it comes to special teams. Newcomer Percy Harvin has given the return game a bit of a kickstart — he’s 11th in the league and sixth in the AFC in return average at 24.5 yards per opportunity in kick returns. Jeremy Kerley is the lead when it comes to punt return work, and his 6.8 yards per return in his 18 opportunities is 23rd in the league. Nick Folk hit 15 of his first 16 field goal chances, but has struggled as of late (he missed a 48- and 45-yarder in a loss to the Dolphins earlier this month), and it was recently reported he’s been suffering from a hip flexor. He’s 26-for-31 on field goal attempts (83.9 percent tied for 18th). Punter Ryan Quigley is averaging 45.9 yards per opportunity, 14th in the league, but has dropped 21 of his 72 punts inside the 20. (He’s has one punt blocked this season.) New York’s coverage units are middle of the pack — 23rd in average kick return yards allowed (21.9) and 20th in average punt return yards allowed (8.5).
THE PATRIOTS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… Harvin proves himself to be a difference-maker, either on offense or on special teams. He wasn’t with the Jets the first time these two teams met, and while he’s been struggling with an ankle injury over the last few weeks, if he can get healthy for Sunday he has the potential to make things a little dicey for the Patriots. The 5-foot-11, 200-pounder, who is a bit of a gadget guy in that he can be moved around a few spots on the field, has flashed positively on several occasions this year, including an impressive outing against the Chiefs when he had 11 catches for 129 yards and a pair of kick returns for 88 yards. The Jets would love to get him cranked up early.
THE JETS ARE IN TROUBLE IF… the Patriots are able to get up on them early, control the tempo and take the energy out of the building. This is going to be the Super Bowl for Gang Green, and the potential emotion between Rex Ryan coaching his last game in North Jersey with the Jets and the possibility of knocking the Patriots out of the top spot in the AFC playoff picture will mean that there will be an edge in this one. If New England is capable of generating its own energy — something they’ve been pretty good at when it comes to road contests this season — and taking the crowd out of the game, that will be half the battle for the Patriots. If New England gets up early, chances are pretty good it’ll have little trouble staying in control down the stretch, particularly against a team that’s struggled to throw the ball. The Patriots have not allowed a touchdown in the second half in each of its last four games. In that stretch, New England has outscored opponents by a 54-6 count in the second half.
BY THE NUMBERS (tie): 19 — Per STATS, in the 10 games since their 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City on Sept. 29, the Patriots have held opponents to 19 points per game, which ranks sixth despite that span including trips to Indianapolis and Green Bay and a home game with Denver – three of the five highest-scoring teams in the league.
59-65 – Ryan has been more successful than most when it comes to slowing Brady. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brady’s completion percentage in games against Jets’ defenses led by Ryan is 59 percent. Against the rest of the league, Brady averages 65 percent. In addition, according to ESPN, in the 94 regular-season games the Patriots have played since the start of 2009 (Ryan’s first season as head coach of the Jets,) New England has scored at least 14 points 91 times. Two of those times the Patriots failed to hit 14 came against Ryan and the Jets.
UNDER THE RADAR STAR: The Jets may not feel like there’s a lot of respect for the Jets around Gillette Stadium (more on that shortly), but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the New England locker room who would dare to speak ill of inside linebacker David Harris. The relatively quiet veteran has been a steadying presence for New York since he first showed up in 2007. The 30-year-old — who was praised by Darrelle Revis earlier this year and Bill Belichick on Friday — isn’t overly flashy, but the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder will finish with more than 100 tackles for the third straight season, to go along with 27.5 career sacks. He’s started every regular-season game for the Jets since 2009, and while he’s struggled a bit in coverage, is still considered a good run stopper. Given Bill Belichick‘s verbal bouquets this week, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots were interested in the veteran when he hits free agency this offseason.
QUOTE OF NOTE: “You can’t give respect to someone who doesn’t respect you. If you don’t give me any respect, I don’t care what you’ve got. I’m coming for you.” — Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley, speaking with Newsday about a perception that no one in the New England locker room respects the Jets