The New York Jets are an impressive 4-1, but their stiffest tests are still to come.
The first of those challenges will be Week 7's road trip to Gillette Stadium to take on the New England Patriots.
Jets head coach Todd Bowles has already shown the kind of impact he can have on a team. The Jets respond much better to their own success than they have in the past. That being said, his impact will mostly be gauged by how he measures up to head coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Former Jets head coach Rex Ryan started off very competitively with the Patriots, winning three of his first five matchups against their rivals to the north. From there, though, the Jets would win just one of the next eight games against the Patriots to bring Ryan's final record against Belichick to 4-9 with the Jets.
It would be a lie, however, to claim that those games were all sure wins for the Patriots. The Jets were competitive in many of the games they played against the Patriots. Seven of those 13 games were decided by seven points or fewer, with the Jets winning three of those seven. Ryan's defenses almost always made life difficult for quarterback Tom Brady, as well.
So far, Bowles has been a great successor to Ryan. He brings many of the same philosophies from a football perspective, but without the brash, bold cockiness that always landed Ryan in the headlines and always had his team struggling to find consistency.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Ryan wasn't always known for beating the Patriots, but he was always known for making headlines any time Belichick and the Patriots would come up on the schedule.
"I never came here to kiss Belichick's rings."—June 2009
"I came here to kick his ass."—November 2010
Those are just two examples, but the list goes on and on.
The mentality for Bowles this week is much different than anything we ever heard from Ryan's mouth in six years as the Jets head coach.
"We're going to take the same approach we've been taking," Bowles said. "You don't get up or down for one game because it means you haven't been playing hard in the first place."
Those are the kinds of words you would never hear come out of Ryan's mouth—especially not during Patriots week.
Bowles is already proving that his method works by leading the Jets to a 4-1 record on a string of games where they haven't gotten up or down, but have instead stayed steady. If he can keep it close with the Patriots, and possibly even beat them, he'll have also proved that his method might work even better than that of his predecessor.
The Measuring Stick
Bowles has already set the tone for the Jets with his team's hot start, but in Week 7, he could send a message that the Jets are going to make life difficult for the Patriots in the AFC East. This will be Bowles' first opportunity to see how his team measures up with the Patriots.
It will be the first stiff test they've faced all year. Six weeks is a small sample size, but the Jets' five opponents share a combined record of 12-17. The same could be said of the Jets being the Patriots' first stiff test of the year. The Patriots' 5-0 record was achieved against teams with a combined 13-16 record.
So, as much as the Jets probably view this game as a measuring stick, the Patriots probably view it the same way. Several head coaches have been shown the door because they couldn't surpass the Patriots—Bowles is the fourth Jets head coach since 2001, and in that time, the Jets have an 8-22 record against the Patriots while being outscored 24.6 to 16.8.
This is a chance for the Jets to show everyone that this team can be competitive with the Patriots. At the same time, this is a chance for the Patriots to show that just because the head coach has changed, doesn't mean the results will follow.
Second Verse, Same as the First?
|Rex Ryan vs. Todd Bowles blitz percentages|
|Coach||Rex Ryan||Todd Bowles|
One constant in the transition from Ryan to Bowles is their implementation of an aggressive 3-4 defensive scheme that asks its cornerbacks to play physical, tight man-to-man coverage. It's a scheme that has given Brady plenty of fits over the years.
Bowles has a similar reputation for a blitz-happy defensive approach, and according to Pro Football Focus, the two men have been among the league's most blitz-happy defensive play-callers this year and in past years.
"They force you into a lot of one-on-one situations, but then they also overload blitz," Belichick said. "They bring everybody and peel with the guys that release so they always have one more than you have so you've got to deal with that, too."
However, Ryan notoriously cooled down his blitz-happy approach when he faced the Patriots over the final three years of his stint with the Jets (56 out of 240 dropbacks, 23.3 percent according to Pro Football Focus).
That being said, when looking at Ryan's recent success with a less aggressive approach on defense, Bowles might be compelled to follow the leader a little bit.
Or perhaps he'll pave his own way. Surely, he trusts cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie enough to leave them on their own in man-to-man coverage, but the question is whether he can also trust linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis and/or safeties Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The key to stopping Brady and the Patriots offense has always been a fierce pass rush coupled with physical, tight man-to-man coverage that creates small windows in the passing game. It's just a matter of how Bowles looks to achieve that goal and whether his players can execute the game plan he sets forth.
As Belichick once said, "players win 'em and coaches lose 'em."
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained via team news release.