Rex Ryan makes a point to referee Terry McAulay during the Jets' loss to Pittsburgh.
In 2012, the Jets lost their first game against the Patriots 29-26 in overtime. However, the Thanksgiving night rematch was not close. Instead, it produced embarrassing moments like Mark Sanchez's "Butt Fumble" and the fans' halftime "salute." Linebacker Bart Scott completed the public relations nightmare with his "dodgeball" comment.
By the way, the Jets lost that game, 49-19.
The teams' Foxborough matchup was eerily similar to 2012, at least in the Patriots' margin of victory. This year, however, the Jets didn't lose a lead. Instead, they lost a 13-10 battle in which Geno Smith threw three fourth-quarter interceptions.
However, that game gave Jets fans hope that the team could compete with playoff-level opponents.
A repeat of 2012's "Thanksgiving night massacre" would not sustain that hope. That wouldn't be a good way for the Jets to begin the most difficult part of their schedule. After the Patriots, the Jets face the Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints.
However, it's best to focus on one game at a time. Here's a quick comparison of the Jets and Patriots:
- They have 3-0 records against common opponents Atlanta, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. The Jets' combined margin of victory is 10 points, 75-65. The Patriots' combined victory margin is 29 points, 76-47. That includes a 23-3 victory over Tampa Bay, whom the Jets beat 18-17.
- The Patriots have a 1-1 record against Cincinnati and New Orleans, teams with a combined 9-3 record, whom the Jets have yet to face. The Jets are 0-2 against teams with a combined 4-7 record, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans.
- Within the AFC East, the Patriots are 2-0, the Jets are 1-1. In conference play, the Patriots are 2-1 to the Jets' 1-3.
- The Patriots turnover ratio is plus-five while the Jets' turnover ratio is minus-11.
Believe it or not, the Patriots are only four-point favorites. That might be because of the game's MetLife Stadium location, the defensive nature of the last game, and the possible absence of Patriots' cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Danny Amendola. Linebacker Jerod Mayo is the latest Patriot to succumb to season-ending injury, joining defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.
However, after their Week 6 comeback win against New Orleans, the Patriots' offense may finally be hitting its stride. That, despite injuries to key defensive personnel, could make this game a long afternoon for the Jets, especially if the Jets beat themselves with turnovers.
I hope I'm wrong, but I think the Patriots will prevail. Brady will take a page from Matt Ryan's book and nibble his way down the field, wearing down the Jets defense and killing clock. That will minimize the chances Geno Smith has against the Patriots' undermanned defense.
It won't be as bad as last Thanksgiving, but it will be decisive. Patriots 31, Jets 17.
But if some of the following predictions go the Jets' way, the score could be much closer.
Punter Ryan Quigley faces the Patriots for the first time.
If I'm wrong about the rebirth of the Patriots' offense and this game becomes a defensive struggle, field position could be the deciding issue.
That means the punting game could play a pivotal role.
New England rookie punter Ryan Allen has been among the strengths of the team. Of his 34 punts, four have gone for touchbacks and 14 pinned opponents inside their 20-yard lines. Opponents have returned 10 of his punts for a total of 62 yards. His net yardage per punt is 41.4.
The Jets' punting game has been more unsettled. Robert Malone, the 2012 incumbent, dueled with Ryan Quigley for the job in preseason. Malone won and even kicked an 84-yard punt against Tampa Bay. But the Jets replaced Malone with Quigley after the first Patriots game, citing a lack of consistency.
Malone's average net yardage was 37.1 yards per punt. Worse, opponents returned nine of his 16 punts for 107 yards, averaging almost 12 yards per return.
Quigley's performance is an improvement. His averages are similar to Allen's. He's punted 22 times in four games, netting 40.8 yards per punt, 3.7 yards better than Malone. The biggest concern about Quigley relative to Allen is still punt-return yardage.
Opponents have returned eight of Quigley's 22 punts for 73 yards. That's over 9.1 yards per return. it's better than Malone's average, but it's still high when compared with Allen's 6.2 yards per return.
This may not be completely Quigley's fault. But there's one other statistic that's key to a punter's performance that might play a role: Hang time.
According to Pro Football Focus (requires paid subscription), Allen's punts have had a maximum hang time of 5.00 seconds, compared to Quigley's 4.80 seconds.
If that discrepancy occurs consistently, New England's punt coverage unit has the advantage on the Jets in having more time to cover a punt.
But if New England's offense plays like it did against New Orleans, this whole discussion may be moot.
Jets kicker Nick Folk in Atlanta
It concerns the coin toss. Most teams that win the toss choose to kick off. They'd rather choose which goal to defend first and hope they're the last team on offense in the first half and the first team on offense in the second half.
But there are advantages to having the first offensive possession as well. A team that scores a touchdown on the opening drive forces its opponent to play from behind immediately.
One touchdown isn't an impossible deficit to overcome, especially early in the game. Nevertheless, the trailing team is under pressure to catch up. The leading team can take risks on defense it might otherwise avoid, because the worst possible outcome would be a tie.
Imagine the Jets getting the first offensive possession. With the game scoreless and no time pressure, they'll be free to use whatever personnel packages and formations Marty Mornhinweg devises. They can throw the kitchen sink at the Patriots in hopes of grabbing that early 7-0 lead.
That would be ideal. But almost anything other than going three-and-out has some tactical advantage.
- Kicking an opening field goal would be okay in the sense of getting some kind of score. But it would give the Patriots defense the sense of stalling a drive short of its ultimate goal. Plus, should the Patriots score a touchdown on their opening drive, the lead would quickly change hands.
- For that matter, as long as the Jets get at least two first downs, there are advantages to gain from being first on offense. In today's NFL, most kickoffs result in touchbacks. If a team advances to its 40-yard line and punts, a 50-yard punt with no return starts the opponent at its 10-yard line. Then it's up to the defense to keep the Patriots bottled up, force a punt and shorten the field for Smith's second drive.
That's why I think Rex Ryan might want the ball first. He knows a touchdown drive won't scare Tom Brady, especially if it's early in the game. But an opening-drive touchdown would still do wonders for the Jets' collective psyche, especially after not scoring any touchdowns against Pittsburgh.
But even if the Jets' only accomplishment is to make Brady start his drives from deep in Patriots territory, the Jets defense will be more free to prioritize quarterback pressure, even through blitzes from the secondary.
Keeping Brady as far away from the end zone as possible combined with constant pressure might be what helps the Jets win.
Geno Smith threw two red-zone interceptions against Pittsburgh.
Both the Jets and Patriots have had issues with red-zone efficiency in 2013.
After Week 3, the Patriots ranked last in red-zone efficiency with a touchdown conversion rate of 30 percent.
They've improved to 30th place with a conversion rate of almost 41 percent. That includes converting 60 percent of their red-zone opportunities against New Orleans and almost 56 percent in their last three games.
The Jets' overall conversion rate of just over 46 percent still surpasses that of New England. However, they didn't convert any red-zone opportunities against Pittsburgh. Their conversion rate over their last three games was just under 43 percent.
That's not their biggest problem. The Jets have another red-zone issue: Turnovers.
Geno Smith threw two interceptions against Pittsburgh. Technically, the line of scrimmage was only inside the red zone on the second interception, when the Jets had a first down on the Pittsburgh 12-yard line.
However, his first interception was close enough, as the line of scrimmage was the Pittsburgh 23-yard line and intended receiver Konrad Reuland was on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. That's the pass Smith maintained he tried to throw away. He threw into triple coverage instead.
Those interceptions cost the Jets at least two field-goal attempts. Combine those six points with the potential 77-yard touchdown strike to Stephen Hill, and the game could have gone into overtime. Or the Jets could have converted those opportunities into 17 or 21 points and won outright.
The Jets are going into Week 7 without running back Mike Goodson, tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receivers Clyde Gates and Santonio Holmes. Goodson's season-ending injury resulted from a tackle attempt after Smith's second interception.
It demonstrates the collateral damage that turnovers can produce. It's one more reason to avoid them.
However, I digress. With so many weapons unavailable, the Jets must make the most out of their limited trips to the red zone if they want to win this game.
Through Week 6, the Jets have 21 quarterback sacks to the Patriots' 16. In other words, both teams pressure the opponents' quarterback.
But injuries in the Patriots' secondary will limit their ability to maintain this pressure against the Jets.
The Patriots began the year with depth issues at defensive tackle that injuries made worse. Vince Wilfork, a team captain, is out for the season. Tommy Kelly missed the New Orleans game and may miss the Jets game. Yet the Patriots continue to accumulate sacks because of their secondary.
It's a matter of coverage. If the secondary keeps receivers covered longer than the offensive line holds their blocks, sacks result.
According to Pro Football Focus (requires paid subscription), six Patriots have played at least 200 snaps in pass coverage: cornerbacks Kyle Arrington, Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib; linebacker Jerod Mayo and safeties Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty. Only Dennard and Arrington have negative pass coverage grades.
Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich are the only Patriots who have played at least 200 snaps as pass-rushers. Their grades in that capacity are negative.
Why is this? Possibly because Jones and Ninkovich don't get their sacks from overwhelming their blockers. Offensive lines are only expected to hold pass blocks for three or four seconds. If the coverage downfield holds for a longer time, the protection often collapses. That's the genesis of the "coverage sack."
The Jets paint a different picture.
The pass rush is in their favor. Muhammad Wilkerson is their only player to take over 200 snaps as a pass-rusher. His 4.0 pass-rush grade is the best among both teams.
However, four players have played over 200 snaps in pass coverage: cornerback Antonio Cromartie, linebackers Demario Davis and David Harris and safety Dawan Landry. None of them has a positive pass coverage grade.
In fact, no Jets player with over 100 snaps in pass coverage boasts a positive pass coverage grade. That adds cornerbacks Darrin Walls and Kyle Wilson plus safety Antonio Allen to the negative coverage grade list.
Safety Jaiquawn Jarrett has the highest number of snaps, 95, of any Jets player with a positive pass coverage grade. Linebacker Calvin Pace follows him closely with 90 snaps.
This would paint a bleak scenario for the Jets' passing game if it were not for this: The Patriots have lost linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season and may play without tackle Kelly and cornerback Talib as well.
If Talib joins Mayo on the sidelines, the Patriots' pass coverage and their ability to pressure Geno Smith will suffer. That's a ray of hope for the New York Jets.
Perhaps the most important statement issued before the Jets-Patriots game will not be that of a player, coach or front office official.
Although Gronkowski has practiced with the team, even in contact drills, Dr. Andrews has not cleared him to play. However, this slide's accompanying video gives hope to Patriots fans.
According to the video, after the Saints game Gronkowski will miss "at most another week." That means he could play against the Jets.
When this game was a potential first-place battle, I thought Gronkowski would play. However, the Jets' loss to Pittsburgh diminished this game's importance.
What's more, the Patriots continue to audition tight ends. Former Tennessee Titan Brandon Barden is their latest candidate.
But don't think this game is insignificant to the Patriots.
The Patriots have races to consider other than for the AFC East title. They're fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs as well.
That means that tiebreakers such as divisional and conference records are important. It's a tight race for the Patriots in both categories.
Should the Jets beat the Patriots, both teams' divisional records would be 2-2. That would be great news to the divisional rival each has yet to play—the Miami Dolphins.
The Dolphins play their first divisional game against the Bills this Sunday. Should the Dolphins and Jets win, the Dolphins would be a half-game out of first place. Their 1-0 divisional record would be a half-game better than that of the Patriots and Jets. Worse for New England, the Dolphins' 3-1 conference record would be one game better than the Patriots' 2-2.
When you also consider that the conference records of Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, Kansas City and Tennessee are all 3-2 or better, the need for the Patriots to keep pace by beating the Jets seems even more urgent.
However, it's not urgent enough to justify rushing Gronkowski back. Here's why:
- They can help themselves. They have two games left with Miami, one with Denver and one with Baltimore.
- Others will help them. Denver and Kansas City have two games left against each other.
- They may have completed the hardest part of their schedule. Their most challenging opponents, Denver and Miami, sport a combined 9-2 record. Their other opponents are Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Houston and Pittsburgh. Their combined record: 13-21.
With that schedule, you could argue that the Patriots will win 10 games even if the Jets win on Sunday. That's usually good enough for at least a wild-card berth.
That's all the more reason to keep Gronkowski on the bench and out of danger for as long as possible. He could help Tom Brady in the regular season, no doubt about it. But a healthy Gronkowski will be even more indispensable come playoff time.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.