One of the biggest rivalries in the NFL reignites on Thursday Night Football as the New England Patriots and the New York Jets square off in the prime-time slot on Thanksgiving night.
The Patriots (7-3) have come a long way since their 1-2 start. Winners of their last four, the Patriots have a new-round running game (fifth in the NFL) to go with their tight end-based attack of last year and their spread offense of yesteryear. The defense—still statistically below average—is much improved from last year. It isn't the liability it once was, and the young bodies along the front give hope to fans that the best is yet to come.
The Jets (4-6) might want to hold off on any parade planning they did before the season and may need to do some coaching/personnel department shuffling in the upcoming offseason instead. Injuries and poor quarterback play have left the offense suffering to find an identity and Tim Tebow has been a bust in the Big Apple. The defense has taken a step back this season as well with Darrelle Revis out, but Rex Ryan has still been able to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing.
So which of these rivals gets the win on Thanksgiving night?
Key Storyline No. 1: How Bad Do the Patriots Want It?
At 7-3, this seems like a silly question for most teams to ask, but it's more than relevant for the Patriots who have a history of greatness to contend with. This team, though easily considered one of the NFL's best in 2012, doesn't seem quite like the Patriots we've all come to know and love (or revile).
Part of the reason for that is a renewed focus on defense and the running game. Another big component is the offensive line shuffling that has happened over the past five years. The Patriots' Pro Bowlers have gone elsewhere and Tom Brady's new crew have yet to gel in the way his old group did. Each year, Bill Belichick's "genius" award gets a little more tarnished even as more of his assistants fail elsewhere.
With Houston and San Francisco still left on the schedule, the end of the season won't be a cakewalk for the Patriots. They need to be at their best to go 3-3 down the stretch. Anything less would be a failure.
It starts on Thursday night. How bad do the Patriots want it this season? Can they muster up the determination to take down a rival who's had a bulls-eye pointed at them for five weeks?
If not, it could be a long winter in Foxborough .
Key Storyline No. 2: Where, Exactly, Is Rock Bottom for the Jets?
If a casual NFL observer only saw the coverage around the Jets this season, they would probably expect to see two or three wins on the season. Yet, at 4-6 (in a weak AFC) they are still, conceivably if not realistically, in the playoff hunt.
Mark Sanchez bounced back a little against the Rams and showed critics (myself included) that he can still put up numbers. The defense, though certainly not as feared as Ryan would like, is still ranked fourth against the pass, even with Revis out.
Yet, with all that positivity for the Jets heading into Week 12, things could get ugly awfully quickly if the Jets fall out of contention while simultaneously embarrassing themselves on national TV against a hated rival that just swept them.
Keys for New England
After watching the last matchup between these two, one thing is clear—the Patriots need to run the football.
Who wins on Thursday night?
Content with a low-percentage passing attack last time around, the Patriots let the Jets hang around in the fourth quarter and failed to capitalize on the mistakes and poor play from Gang Green in the first half.
Since then, Stevan Ridley has asserted himself even more as a lead back in the NFL while Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen have settled into their roles nicely. If the Patriots ride Ridley to victory, it will be an easy one.
On defense, there isn't much to do against the Jets except throw Mark Sanchez off rhythm, which isn't that difficult to do. If the Patriots can get to him early, they'll set the tone for the game. They also need to stop Dustin Keller who torched them for seven catches and a TD in the last matchup. The Pats' secondary is improved with Aqib Talib in the fold, but they'll need to hope Devin McCourty and Tavon Wilson bring their A-game.
Keys for New York
Offensively, the Jets need to roll out a balanced attack, but more importantly, they need to make sure they take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.
The Jets know how to beat the Patriots, they were built to beat the Patriots. They circle these two games on their calendars every summer and would be lying if they said they didn't start gameplanning for Bill Belichick weeks ahead of time.
Last time around, the Jets lost the turnover battle, committed more penalties and went 2-4 in the red zone. There's little chance of winning against any opponent if that happens. Honestly, when four dropped passes is the least of your mental error worries, you deserve to lose.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Jets obviously need to get to Brady, but they also need to commit to stopping the Patriots running game. Without Rob Gronkowski and with Aaron Hernandez dinged up, the run game has to be a focal point here. If the Jets forced the Patriots to beat them on the outside and pressure Brady in the process, this could be an upset in the making.
Bold Prediction: Patriots Will Rush For More Yards Than the Jets Will Get Passing
Ultimately, I just don't think that is going to happen.
Ridley is a different player and the Patriots are a different team than they were five weeks ago. The Patriots have committed to using Ridley and will be forced to against the Jets' 30th-ranked rushing defense. In the process, the Patriots might even end up looking (gasp) somewhat conventional as they run and utilize the play-action pass to roll over the Jets.
With that kind of ball control and a defense that will pin its ears back against Sanchez, look for the Patriots rushing attack to threaten 175 total yards and keep the Jets passing attack around 150.
Player of the Game: Stevan Ridley
Of course, that means Ridley is going to have a ridiculous day on the ground. He should get over the century mark and in the end zone at least once. Don't discount him in the passing game either, as he should be a good safety valve on early downs when the Patriots decide to go play action.
Ridley should continue his fantastic play in Week 12 as the Patriots continue their winning streak and the Jets give the New York media something to be thankful for over the holiday weekend.
Final Score: Patriots 34; Jets 17
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."