It hasn't exactly been a season bound for the annals of Patriot Place. At least, not yet.
As silly as it sounds just seven weeks into the regular season, the Pats need to win this game if they hope to make a deep playoff run. New England simply doesn't have a talented enough secondary to survive three road playoff games—they'll need a high seed to make it far in the playoffs.
To that end, the Pats will have to lean on a handful of rookies to make significant contributions against the Jets, particularly on defense.
Let's take a look at how some of the first-year Pats will fare in Week 7's divisional matchup.
DE Chandler Jones
Jones has been a force for the Pats off the edge this season.
He's pressured the quarterback with unPatriot-like consistency (apologies to Andre Carter), racking up five sacks and three forced fumbles in his first six games in the NFL.
The Patriots are going to have to rely on Jones to provide a consistent pass rush, given the inadequacy of the New England secondary.
Jones has learned to use his long arms in space to leverage opposing blockers (a tendency he shares with Bills LB Mario Williams). In a very short time, he has demonstrated some fantastic veteran moves—including inside-out and swim moves like this one—to overcome his relatively lean frame.
Jones is matched up against D'Brickashaw Ferguson, a seven-year vet with poise, experience and talent. Ferguson is one of the league's better LTs, but so was Michael Roos of the Tennesse Titans. Pats fans should recall Chandler Jones beating Roos for a strip sack in Week 1 that LB Dont'a Hightower picked up and returned for a touchdown.
The Pats might also try and line up Jones on the weak side of the trenches to avoid TE and RB chips. On plays he's matched up one-on-one against RT Austin Howard, he could have a field day.
Chandler Jones Week 7 Prediction: Four tackles, one TFL, one sack, one PD
Tavon Wilson had himself a bad day against the Seahawks.
He was responsible for a blown coverage on the game-losing 46-yard TD pass to Sidney Rice in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. Wilson bit on a double-move by Rice, who faked underneath then blew by the second-round pick for the easy score.
That's exactly the kind of poor instincts the Pats don't want to see from their rookie safety. He needs to understand that, in that situation, his job is to prevent the big play.
Wilson, to his credit, took full blame for the play after the game, saying (per ESPNBoston.com):
"You’ve got to make a play when you need to make it, and I didn’t. I got beat. I accept that. We were in simple coverage and [Rice] made the play and I didn’t."
He'll be tested again in Week 7, with starting S Steve Gregory out again (via BostonHerald.com).
The Jets know that the Pats have allowed more passes of 20-plus yards (33) than any other team in football. They'll almost certainly take a few deep shots with burning rookie WR Stephen Hill to test this flimsy secondary.
Wilson has solid coverage skills, but he'll need to refocus on his instincts and understanding situational football. I expect some improvement from him in Week 7, but the secondary is still going through growing pains (to say the least) and they'll struggle yet again against the Jets.
Tavon Wilson Week 7 Prediction: Five targets, three receptions for 60 yards, two PD (one in deep support of CB)
LB Dont'a Hightower
Hightower is listed as questionable after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury.
If he's in—and we'll assume he is, or this would be a short section on his Week 7 performance—Hightower will play a big role in New England's base 4-3 defense.
Hightower has proven to be a thumper in the run game, and one of New England's better coverage linebackers (not saying much).
He could help in bracketing Jets TE Dustin Keller (with a safety over the top) and monitoring Sanchez's security-blanket checkdown routes.
Either way, he'll certainly be called on to silence the Jets' newest experiment: Tim Tebow at RB.
If Hightower is playing, look for him to rotate with other LBs to keep him fresh in his return (which should please the Free Bobby Carpenter! crowd).
But when he's on the field, expect Hightower to make plays.
Dont'a Hightower Week 7 Prediction: 35 snaps, five tackles (one for loss), three targets, two receptions for 12 yards, FF
CB Alfonzo Dennard
Dennard is finally seeing the field after missing the first five games of the season with a hamstring injury.
He was tested by Broncos QB Peyton Manning in his debut, and he came out looking strong, with a couple of PDs and no noticeable coverage breakdowns.
Last week against the Seahawks, he regressed a bit, getting beat by Braylon Edwards for a 10-yard TD reception. Dennard was also flagged for pass interference on the play.
Still, he seems to have good coverage instincts and the athleticism to stay with receivers (and I'd argue that flag should have gone the other way).
Dennard will likely see more time on the field against the Jets, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to a tough loss. Look for him to play some nickel and also line up against Stephen Hill or Jeremy Kerley along the outside.
I'm seeing another solid game from Dennard—though he won't register his first INT quite yet. But that will come, soon.
Alfonzo Dennard Week 7 Prediction: Five targets, two receptions for 25 yards, one PD