It is only the seventh week of the season, but there is already a game in the AFC East that could potentially determine the division. The top two teams in the division—the New England Patriots and the New York Jets—will face each other for the first of two times this year. The winner of the game is assured first place in the division for another week.
In my preseason predictions (6-0 so far), I picked the Jets to lose in New England in Week 7. I still stand by that prediction. However, this game is going to be a lot closer than many people will expect. If the spread is set at a field goal or more, that is too much.
Why do the Patriots have such a tough game ahead at home?
The Patriots have dealt with a lot of offensive line issues so far this season, going all the way back to the preseason. While quarterback Tom Brady does a good job of masking those issues, their pass protection and run blocking has suffered as a result. Two of their three best blockers so far this year have been tight ends. While the Patriots have very good tight ends, this does not say much about their offensive line.
Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder—expected to be two of their better offensive linemen—have struggled so far this season.
The Patriots pass defense has picked up where it left off last year. Through the first five weeks of this season, they ranked 29th in the NFL with 290 passing yards against per game. The Patriots secondary especially has received a lot of criticism.
On Sunday, the Patriots yielded 10.9 yards per pass and a 133.7 quarterback rating to rookie Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Quarterback Tom Brady has historically had a lot of trouble with the Jets defense. If the Patriots start giving up touchdowns to the Jets offense, it could be a problem.
The benchmark for points in this game should be around 25. The Patriots offense can usually put up 20-to-25 points, even against a great defense. Their defense should have, as a goal, to keep Mark Sanchez, Shonn Greene and the rest of the Jets offense below 20 points.
The Patriots run defense has been less than spectacular so far this season. Some of their more renown players along the front seven—such as four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork—have failed to make an impact thus far in 2012.
For the most part, the Patriots run defense has ranked out negatively against a variety of running backs. Their offense has masked their poor run defense to a degree by holding the ball and forcing other teams to pass. However, their run defense could get exposed a bit more if they are required to get a run-heavy offense off the field.
On the whole, the Patriots defense is the side of the ball that New England fans should be worried about the most. They have given up at least 20 points in five straight games now, including 14 fourth quarter points to the Seattle Seahawks in a loss that rests squarely on the shoulders of the defense.
I am picking the Patriots in this one—due to the continued excellence of their offense—but with great hesitation.