Here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on in Monday’s Patriots-Jets game:
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
Exploiting matchups in the New York secondary. The Jets figure to have some sort of combination of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie on Deion Branch and Wes Welker. While Revis and Cromartie are two of the better corners in the league, there’s not much past that, which should allow the Patriots to take advantage of some mismatches, particularly when it comes to covering the two rookie tight ends. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez could create problems for the Jets, particularly with New York missing safety Jim Leonhard, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken leg. Hernandez had a career-day against the Jets in their first meeting, finishing with six catches for 101 yards, while Gronkowski remains a red-zone threat. Regardless of who gets the ball, there should be opportunities for New England in the passing game. It all depends on how the Patriots take advantage.
Balance. New York is fourth in the league in run defense, allowing an average of 86.3 yards per game, so the Patriots aren’t going to beat the Jets by becoming a run-first team. However, the running game will have a place on Monday night. Witness what the Patriots did in a Nov. 14 win over the Steelers — who, at that point, were the best team in the league at run defense. In that one, New England ran the ball 24 times as a team (including 18 carries in the second half, when they had as much as a 19-point lead) on the way to a 39-26 win over Pittsburgh. In a perfect world for the Patriots, they would get a second-half lead and then use the running game to bleed the clock. In addition, establishing the run would give New England more of a threat in the play-action game, a valuable weapon for quarterback Tom Brady recently and one that could be used against a Jets’ defense who have tendency to overpursue.
Keeping Brady on a roll. Brady had arguably the worst stat line of his career in the first game of the year against the Jets (20-for-36, 248 yards, two TDs, two INTs, one sack and one fumble), but is now coming off a stretch where he has played some of the finest football of his career. Brady’s most recent three-game stretch has seen him go 70-for-95 for 877 yards, 10 touchdowns (one rushing) and zero interceptions, a run that’s included just the second perfect passer rating of his career (last time out against the Lions). If he maintains that level Monday night against the Jets, the New England offense will be awfully hard to stop.
The Woodhead Effect. More than anyone, Danny Woodhead represents how much this New England offense has changed since the Week 2 matchup. Instead of New England dropping back and taking shots downfield (Randy Moss was targeted an astonishing 10 times in that game), the Patriots have diversified their attack, focusing more on short and intermediate routes with pass plays designed for Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Woodhead. Look for Woodhead, who is averaging an impressive 5.6 yards per touch, to be utilized in the short game, as well as serve as an option in the running game, particularly with draw plays.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Containing Santonio Holmes. The New England defensive ethos is always about stopping the opposing teams’ No. 1 offensive option, and that’s probably Holmes. The receiver, who was serving a four-game suspension the first time these two teams met, has been sizzling as of late, with 32 catches for 491 yards and four touchdowns in seven games. While they don’t figure to be going head-to-head exclusively, a potential Holmes-Devin McCourty matchup could be one of the best of the season. For his part, Holmes said this week he can’t see any rookie keeping up with him. (“Negative,” Holmes said. “That was proven Super Bowl Sunday two years ago, when they had [Cardinals rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie] following me around the whole game.”) For what it’s worth, the Patriots have found a way to bottle him up in the past — he has just three catches for 41 yards (1 TD) in two career games versus the Patriots.
Don’t let Dustin Keller be a killer. The Patriots have been roasted on several occasions by Keller, most notably in the Week 2 matchup when he had seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown in the 28-14 Jets win. The tight end has always managed to be a situational beast against New England — remember his 16-yard reception on a key overtime throw-and-catch with Brett Favre in an overtime classic against the Patriots in 2008? Keller will be one of the finest tight ends New England will face all season long, and with the Patriots missing their designated tight-end stopper in Brandon McGowan, that job could fall to inside linebacker Gary Guyton.
The Jets in the red zone. The Jets are one of the worst teams in the league at touchdown percentage inside the opposing 20. New York has 35 offensive red-zone possessions, and it has converted just 14 of them for touchdowns, a rate of 40 percent, the lowest total in the AFC and tied for 29th in the league. (By way of comparison, the Patriots’ offense has converted 27-of-44 red-zone touchdown opportunities, good for 61 percent.) The New England red-zone defense — which has picked up some key stops over the last month — is allowing teams to convert TDs at a 63 percent rate inside its own 20. If the Patriots can force the Jets to field goals inside their own 20 as opposed to touchdowns, that’ll go a long way toward winning the game.
Running the ball. The Jets are second in the league when it comes to running the football, averaging 148.1 yards per game on the ground, and they will likely test the New England run defense early on Monday night. Veteran LaDainian Tomlinson leads New York with 741 rushing yards, while Shonn Greene has 575. However, it appears that the Jets are relying more on Greene over the second half of the season — Tomlinson’s carries have dipped over the last few weeks, while Greene has seen a slight uptick in his workload.
The Jets special teams are in a state of flux. Punt returner Jim Leonhard (averaging 11.3 yards, tied for eighth in the league) is lost for the year because of a broken leg he suffered earlier this week and kicker Nick Folk has struggled as of late (he’s missed five of his last 10 field goal attempts), but kick returner Brad Smith is coming off one of the finest performances of his career, a game where he had an 89-yard kick return for a touchdown. (He leads the league with a 29.2-yard return average.) Meanwhile, after a big start, the Patriots’ special teams (with the exception of punter Zoltan Mesko) have had major issues. Since the start of the year, New England has slipped in almost every major special teams category, including kick returns and kick coverage. When it comes to being a game-changer, Smith could provide the Jets with an edge.
Winning the turnover battle. We said it before the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, but it holds true again this week — if the Patriots are able to win the turnover battle, there’s an excellent chance that they will win the game. The Patriots are a perfect (8-0) when they are at least plus-one in the turnover department, and are plus-11 this season, tied for the best in the AFC with Pittsburgh and tied for second in the NFL behind Philadelphia’s plus-15. On the other side of the ball, no starting quarterback has done a better job not throwing interceptions than Brady — he’s now gone six straight games without an interception, tying a franchise record. His current streak of 199 consecutive pass attempts without a pick is a personal best, breaking his old record of 183 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, which he set in 2009. (The current streak stretches from the overtime period vs. Baltimore on Oct. 17 through the Detroit game. His last interception was on the last play of regulation against the Ravens last month.)