Patriots vs. Jets: Full New England Game Preview
The New England Patriots have arrived at their next checkpoint en route to Santa Clara on Feb. 7. With a win over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium this Sunday, the Pats will clinch home-field advantage throughout the postseason, thereby buying some much-needed rest for their banged-up squad.
But while the Pats' chances of ultimately earning the top seed are overwhelming, nothing should be taken as a foregone conclusion. The 9-5 Jets are battling for their own playoff lives, and because of poor positioning in regard to tiebreakers, Gang Green has virtually no margin for error. New York would not be automatically eliminated with a loss to the Patriots but would come perilously close.
Setting the motivation factor aside, the Jets also present a fairly difficult matchup for New England, as evidenced by the Patriots' narrow 30-23 escape back in Week 7. A healthy squad at the time, the seven-point home win was the closest the Pats had come to losing thus far in the season, as the Jets held a 20-16 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Now depleted, New England will need one final strong push before it can temporarily rest on its laurels before the postseason. Read on for complete analysis of how the Patriots can ensure the AFC playoffs run through Gillette Stadium.
Week 15 Results and Recap
New England's two-game respite against AFC South competition came just in time. Following a three-touchdown win over the Houston Texans two weeks ago, the Pats again snuffed out any hint of an upset bid early, beating the Tennessee Titans in the regular-season home finale, 33-16.
Again, the story of the game was New England's pass rush, which has now accumulated 11 sacks in its past two games.
Jamie Collins knocked rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota out of the game when he rushed unblocked up the middle, while Chandler Jones set a new career high with 12.5 sacks after recording two takedowns on the day. Apart from a breakdown on Delanie Walker's 57-yard fourth quarter touchdown, the Pats were rock-solid all day in suffocating the impotent Titans offense.
Offensively, the Pats were conservative for the second straight week, asking Tom Brady to drop back just 36 times while running the ball 26 times. Two of Brady's three lowest pass-attempt totals this year have now come in the past three weeks, as he attempted just 30 throws against Houston. When Brady did drop back, over half of his targets went to either Rob Gronkowski or James White, who accounted for both of New England's offensive touchdowns on the day.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Patriots game without another litany of injuries, as the trio of Danny Amendola, Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung all went down and failed to return. We'll have more on their statuses shortly, but the good news is that none seem to be in serious jeopardy of missing the postseason, at least based on early whispers.
News and Notes
Steven Jackson Arrives
After working out the three-time Pro Bowler last week, the Patriots made it official with Steven Jackson this week, inking the 32-year-old to a one-year deal.
The season-ending injury to power back LeGarrette Blount clearly spurred the signing from New England's end, but Bill Belichick also noted that Jackson's familiarity with Josh McDaniels' system played a factor in the team's decision, via Patriots.com:
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Jackson spent one season together in the Rams offense in 2011. As such, Belichick believes that gives the new New England running back a head start in his acclimation to late-season life in Foxborough.
'Josh was with him in St. Louis, so I think that's much more of a factor. In our offense, as an NFL player. I don't think there is any question about Jackson's intelligence, work ethic, character. He was a great player. Where is he now? I don't know.'
Jackson isn't likely to be a major part of the game plan, and not simply because of his recent arrival. The Jets are the top-ranked run defense by Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, having allowed just 3.8 yards per carry thus far.
New England threw 54 passes and called just nine running plays in the first meeting, and it wouldn't be surprising to see a similarly lopsided run-pass split this Sunday.
However, the Patriots have proven willing to turn to the ground game if the opponent calls for it. Jackson doesn't have much tread left on his tires and is a complementary piece for what the Pats hope will be the next five games. Still, his mere presence allows Brandon Bolden to move back to special teams and alleviates pressure on an unproven commodity like Joey Iosefa or Montee Ball, giving New England an extra layer of insurance.
Special Teams Causing More Alarm
New England has traditionally excelled on special teams, which makes the past month the unit's equivalent of Tom Brady's struggles last September. The Pats have seen disaster strike in the third phase in four consecutive games, and ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss sees special teams as the top area the team needs to address before the postseason:
In each of the past four games, the Patriots have had significant special-teams mistakes, starting with Chris Harper's lost muffed punt versus Denver; surrendering a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown as well as an 83-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Eagles; a lost muffed punt by Keshawn Martin against Houston; and a lost fumble on a punt return by Danny Amendola against Tennessee. As the margin for error shrinks in the playoffs, those are the types of miscues that could end a team's season. We've seen the Patriots make significant changes on the punt protection unit in recent weeks, which has included having veteran defensive end Rob Ninkovich play on it.
Nobody thinks about the end-of-the-roster players who play almost exclusively on special teams, and most of the injury focus has centered on the Patriots' starters. While those players will obviously draw the majority of the attention, losing core special teams contributors like Dane Fletcher, Eric Martin and Jonathan Freeny hasn't helped. Moreover, captain Matthew Slater has battled a litany of injuries this year, and is likely playing at far less than 100 percent.
Most of these mistakes seem like one-off flukes which shouldn't hamper New England's postseason hopes, but the Patriots are also lucky that these egregious errors have happened at a time where they still have an opportunity to correct them. If Belichick cannot clean up this unit by January, the Pats may not remain so fortunate.
Seven Patriots Reach Pro Bowl
No Patriots fan ever wants to see his favorite player show up at the Pro Bowl, since that means the team fell short of its Super Bowl goals. Still, it was nice to see the Patriots receive a total of seven selections: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Stephen Gostkowski, Malcolm Butler and Matthew Slater. The total was the highest among AFC teams and tied the Patriots with the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals for the second-highest in the league.
The one surprise on that list might be Butler, whose Q rating has skyrocketed in the past 10 months. The second-year pro has worked to avoid the one-hit-wonder label, and ahead of this week's game, Jets head coach Todd Bowles had strong praise for Butler, via WEEI's Mike Petraglia:
Malcolm’s probably the best in the league. He shows up. He takes the best [receiver]. He studies the game. He’s not just a man corner, he’s a zone corner, too. He’s feisty. He has very good technique, which is rare. He’s got great hand-eye coordination. He reads the ball. He accepts all challenges. You can tell he works at it. I enjoy watching him play.
That kind of superlative praise is probably lip service, but Butler's unexpected ascent to become a No. 1 corner is arguably the most pleasant surprise of the season for the Patriots.
When New England reunites again with Darrelle Revis this week, Bill Belichick can rest assured that he made the correct choice in passing on Revis' exorbitant contract demands and trusting Butler's growth.
Latest Injury News
With six weeks having passed since Edelman broke his foot against the Giants, it appears his rehab has gone according to schedule.
Six weeks was the low end of the timeline for a potential return, and NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported that the Patriots may hold Edelman out one more week with an eye on getting him some reps in the regular-season finale:
Rehab #Patriots WR Julian Edelman (broken foot) is going well, I'm told. Good chance he's on the field W17, getting acclimated for playoffs— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 20, 2015
This is reminiscent of how the Patriots handled Rob Gronkowski during the 2012 season, when Gronk broke his forearm before returning Week 17 in a part-time role ahead of the postseason.
Of course, the Pats will hope Edelman's return goes much smoother than it did that year for Gronkowski, who re-fractured his forearm in the playoffs and set the dominoes in motion for a lost 2013 season.
The oft-injured wide receiver had to exit early for the second time in his past four games, apparently re-spraining the left knee he originally hurt in the Week 11 contest against the Buffalo Bills. However, Rapoport suggested that the aggravation isn't serious and should not prevent Amendola from suiting up in January:
#Patriots WR Danny Amendola is still getting tests on his knee, but the belief is it's a sprain that won't cause him to miss playoff time— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) December 21, 2015
That's the good news, but it will leave the Pats perilously shorthanded this week if Amendola is unable to go. Though he was present for the Wednesday walkthrough, prudence would seemingly suggest rest for Amendola to ensure that his sprain doesn't turn into a more serious tear.
Even if that hurts the Patriots' chances of winning this Sunday, New England seems likely to err on the side of caution and play the long game with Amendola.
Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower
The Pats saw a pair of defensive starters go down against Tennessee but appear to have escaped relatively unscathed in the big picture. Both Chung and Hightower were present at Wednesday's walkthrough, and the hip injury which Chung sustained last Sunday wasn't even listed on the injury report, which suggests that it did not turn out to be serious.
New England might be able to skate by without Hightower this week, but Chung might be critical to a safety corps which might already be missing center fielder Devin McCourty.
If both veteran starters are out, one of the deepest positions on the roster would suddenly become extremely shallow, which would likely thrust rookie Jordan Richards and special teamer Nate Ebner into more prominent roles.
It's unclear if New York will be so lucky with another starter on the defensive side, though Todd Bowles appeared cautiously optimistic following Wednesday's practice:
Bowles: ILB David Harris was LTD today. "If he does a little more tomorrow, I'll be optimistic" about his Sunday availability.— New York Jets (@nyjets) December 23, 2015
Middle linebacker Harris is the fulcrum of that defense, providing three-down value and handling the play calls. If New York's defensive captain is able to go, Gang Green will be a relatively healthy squad for its most important game of the season.
Full injury report available via Patriots.com.
Logan Ryan vs. Brandon Marshall
After a disappointing, injury-plagued 2014 season, Marshall has re-established himself as one of the league's elite receivers during his first year in New York.
However, the Patriots were one of the few defenses to stifle Marshall this season, limiting the 31-year-old Pro Bowler to four catches for 67 yards back in Week 7.
The Pats used bracket coverage with Logan Ryan and Devin McCourty to contain Marshall, who only saw eight targets that day. Given how well that worked, it seems reasonable to assume Bill Belichick will run that coverage game plan back, albeit with Duron Harmon likely in place of an injured McCourty as the center field safety blanket.
The tradeoff there would require Malcolm Butler to move into the slot on Eric Decker, where he was clearly out of his comfort zone (Decker had six catches for 96 yards). But the Jets have an extremely Marshall-and-Decker-centric passing game—though Bilal Powell and Quincy Enunwa have gotten more involved recently, the top duo has still accounted for over 52 percent of New York's targets since the first meeting.
Thus, if the Pats can force Ryan Fitzpatrick to consistently look away from his favorite target, the Jets could struggle to create the big downfield plays they've relied on this season.
Rob Gronkowski vs. Marcus Gilchrist
Defending Gronkowski is never a one-man job, but in the first game, free safety Gilchrist generally drew the tight end in coverage. This falls in line with how the Jets defended Gronk during the Rex Ryan era, when they preferred coverage-oriented safeties like Antonio Allen over more physical box safeties like Calvin Pryor.
Of course, the Jets also had to deal with Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis that day. With Gronk's backup singers sidelined, it's possible Todd Bowles will choose to devote more resources to Gronkowski, perhaps dropping middle linebacker Demario Davis into Gronkowski's zone more frequently.
Regardless, Josh McDaniels has done a nice job in recent weeks of moving Gronk around the formation to create matchups designed to get him open. As a largely man-oriented defense, the Jets may not necessarily be comfortable altering their scheme simply to plan for Gronk.
Whether it's Gilchrist or some other combination of defenders, Gronkowski might see his highest target total in weeks at the vanguard of an otherwise depleted receiving corps.
Marcus Cannon vs. Muhammad Wilkerson
The Jets' best defender lines up everywhere along the defensive line but will most frequently line up in a 5- or 7-technique across from the right tackle, especially on passing downs. Consequently, two weeks after dealing with J.J. Watt, Cannon will again face off regularly against another strong All-Pro candidate.
Cannon missed the first game against the Jets with a toe injury, but Wilkerson gave Cameron Fleming plenty of issues, beating him for a sack and seven total pressures, based on charting from Pro Football Focus. Even though Bowles runs a blitz-happy scheme, much of the New York's most consistent pressure comes from Wilkerson on the edge, rather than from an unblocked rusher.
Don't be surprised to see blocking tight end Michael Williams frequently chip Wilkerson in tandem with Cannon, which is how the Pats handled Watt.
Given that the Pats figure to turn to a pass-heavy game plan against New York's stout front, how the offensive line blocks Wilkerson in pass protection will go a long way toward determining how much time Brady has to operate from the pocket.
Patriots X-Factors of the Week: Leonard Johnson and Justin Coleman
We're double-dipping this week, as the Patriots may very well call on their depth cornerbacks against New York's spread system.
Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey likes to use four-receiver sets, putting maximum speed on the field and stressing the back end of defenses. For a Pats team that has preferred to use three- and four-safety sub-packages, this will force Matt Patricia and Bill Belichick out of their comfort zones.
Johnson has become the nickel corner since signing two weeks ago, debuting well against Houston. However, Johnson committed a costly holding penalty last week against Tennessee which wiped out a Malcolm Butler interception.
The Titans didn't really provide much of a test otherwise, especially with Kendall Wright out, and it will be interesting to see if the Pats utilize Johnson on Decker in the slot at all this week.
Meanwhile, Coleman has fallen down the depth chart since breaking his hand and missing three weeks. But it's doubtful that Johnson is entrenched as the No. 3 corner, and Coleman could very well get dime-package snaps with McCourty and Chung both possibly missing this game.
Sunday could be the opportunity Coleman needs to vault himself back into the defensive back rotation.
Jets X-Factor of the Week: Antonio Cromartie
Despite his flashy past credentials, Cromartie has struggled for much of this season opposite Darrelle Revis. According to PFF, opposing quarterbacks have compiled an eye-popping 118.5 rating when targeting Cromartie. Among the 116 cornerbacks who have played at least 25 percent of their team's defensive snaps, that figure ranks a wretched 98th.
Even with his occasional struggles against elite competition this year, Revis shouldn't have too much trouble stifling whoever he lines up against. But if the Patriots dilapidated receiving corps can beat Cromartie, that would both relieve pressure on Rob Gronkowski and James White and give Brady an option outside the numbers.
Despite his struggles, the Jets haven't cut Cromartie's snaps in favor of Buster Skrine or Dee Milliner yet. The Patriots offense will revolve around other players, but if Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin can give them a slight boost, it could be enough to put New England over the top.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 26
The same matchup issues New York presented back in October have only become more pressing as the Patriots offense have lost bodies.
Like most of New England's contests over the second half of the season, Sunday's game will likely be a laborious affair which remains close until the end.
At the same time, the Jets aren't the same team they were in October, either. Chris Ivory's hot start has cooled considerably, leaving Bilal Powell and old friend Stevan Ridley to steal carries in a largely uninspiring backfield. Over the past month, the Jets have averaged 4.1 yards per carry, exactly the league average over that span.
If the game turns into Brady and Fitzpatrick attempting to one-up each other, the Patriots will gladly take that development. New York's secondary holds the edge in pedigree and annual income, but New England's callow cornerbacks have played at a similarly high level the entire season.
The real test may come if both McCourty and Chung, the elder statesmen of the secondary, are missing. At that point, communication could become the Pats' biggest hurdle on the back end of the defense.
The Pats do have a bit of breathing room for once, as they could still lock up home-field advantage with a win in Week 17. However, the guess here is that New England will grind out a win in enemy territory, buying desperately needed time off for the walking wounded.