Friday, January 14, 2011

Preview of Patriots vs. Jets

Doesn't two weeks between games feel like too much?  Unless of course your team has a playoff bye and a home playoff game -- then you'll accept it, I suppose.  The Patriots face off with the Jets on Sunday, their third meeting of the season, and sure to be a barn-burner.

Naturally the big question is who will prevail, and to answer that question I usually look at the most recent game they played and consider whether or not enough has changed in the interim to alter the outcome.  But that would be a foolish exercise in this case.  The Patriots shellacked the Jets 45-3 last time, a blowout win that almost certainly won't be repeated this time.

So instead of the shortest entry in the history of this blog (e.g. "Patriots will win... tune in Monday for the recap."), I will consider the game a wash at this point and see how the teams are likely to perform, given the venue, the weather, the past history, and playoff experience.

1.  Sunshine and Sunset

Mark Sanchez could be one of "The Sunshine Boys" -- because he plays so much better in good weather than bad, and he plays exceptionally poor games in Gillette Stadium.  His mediocre 62.4 passer rating in the win over the Colts last week is typical for him at this time of year.  And for anyone holding out hope of a great performance by Sanchez, consider how his stats compare from sunny September, to dark and scary December/January, to cold and windy Gillette Stadium:

95 of 162 (58.7%), 10 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 96.1 QB rating
181 of 324 (55.9%), 7 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 68.0 QB rating
At Gillette Stadium:
25 of 54 (46.3%), 1 touchdown, 7 interceptions, 30.4 QB rating

Not a lot to hang your hat on there.
At running back for the Jets is LaDainian Tomlinson, who at age 31 might be nearing the sunset of his career, and who certainly performs worse as the season hits its sunset -- the playoffs.  Here are the rushing numbers from Tomlinson's last seven playoff games:

16 carries for 82 yards
12 for 24
5 for 25
0 for 0
21 for 42
7 for 28
2 for 5

Even if you discard the 0-0, that averages to 10.5 carries for 34.3 yards a game and a 3.2 yard-per-carry average, not exactly the stuff of legends.  And even though he reportedly is healthier for these playoffs than past years, his 82 yards last week were less impressive given that they came against a porous Indianapolis defense.

None of this is to say that Sanchez and Tomlinson can't do well on Sunday.  Either or both could have breakout games and possibly decide things in the Jets favor.  But history tells us they probably won't. 

2.  On the Defensive

For all the bluster coming out of the Jets and all the praise heaped on Rex Ryan and their defensive talent, the Jets don't have a distinct advantage in the most important defensive statistic, points allowed.  New York gave up 304 points this year, New England gave up 313 -- less than 1 point difference per game.

But the biggest problem when the Jets play the Patriots stems from their basic defensive design.  Rex Ryan built them to stop a more traditional passing attack, with height and speed on the outside, quickness at the slot, size at tight end, and one running back.  Unfortunately for the Jets, they don't face a team like that on Sunday.

The Patriots quick-cut, possession passing game destroyed the Jets scheme last time they played, with multiple receivers beating press coverage at the snap and Tom Brady hitting them in stride for good gains, some with 20+ yards after the catch.  The Jets concentrated on stopping Wes Welker and Deion Branch, but they still grabbed 10 catches for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns.

The Jets will definitely come up with a different scheme to combat the Patriots short game, but they are limited by the type of talent they have.  They need fast, active linebackers and advanced zone schemes to stop an inside/short/possession passing attack, neither of which play to the Jets strengths.

3.  On the Defensive II

The Patriots might have some issues on defense, too.  Last week New York punished the Colts with the running game to hang around and beat them at the end of the game.  Most people think their best chance to win on Sunday is to do more of the same.  And if the Jets can duplicate their 38 rushes for 169 yards 2 touchdowns and a 6:14 advantage in time of possession, they probably have a decent chance.

Their odds of pulling that off increased when Mike Wright and Ron Brace were placed on injured reserve, knocking them out of the playoffs.  The Patriots D-line is mostly Vince Wilfork and a bunch of guys who rotate in and out -- and that usually isn't a good formula to stop the run.  (Although they did finish #11 in the NFL with 4.2 yards given up per rush.)

There are two bits of good news for the Pats defense; Brandon Spikes returns from his suspension, and he is a much better run-stopper than his replacement, Gary Guyton.  Also, with an extra week off, the Patriots defensive linemen should be well rested, making it tougher for the Jets to wear them down with the run.

Still, if the Jets keep the game close, they will continue running the ball.  So perhaps the Patriots best defense would be a good offense -- one that scores a few touchdowns early and makes the Jets abandon the run.

4.  Special of the Day

The impact of special teams could be significant because the level of play between the teams is different.  The Patriots lost Stephen Gostkoswski early in the year, and Shane Graham's kickoffs are shorter and field goal attempts less certain.  Add to that the Jets very good return game, and that could add up to a significant advantage in field position for New York, and also could be trouble if the Patriots need a late field goal.  Graham will have to be very good with his directional kickoffs and the Pats might need to squib the kick if they face a significant wind.

The Patriots kickoff return game is very good, but teams have been kicking away from Brandon Tate, and aside from Dan Connolly's oddball return, the other players haven't picked up the slack very much.  And the Jets are sure to pull out all the stops for the playoffs, so everyone on the kick return team needs to be aware of how to handle short kicks and also be on the alert for trick plays or unexpected onside kicks.

The teams are about equal in the punting game, both having potential game-breaking returners and punters who averaged about the same net yards on the year.  Of course, the Patriots have a rookie punting, and you never know how young players will perform when you get to the playoffs.  Which leads directly into the last major factor...

5.  The Rookies

Much of the Patriots success can be traced to a very good rookie class, and there is no way to predict how the young players will perform in the playoffs. It is especially important to get good games out of the rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and rookie corner Devin McCourty.  Here's a quick break-down of how they are likely to do.

There is evidence that Gronkowski might have trouble performing on the big stage. He had his worst game of the year at Cleveland, and the game plan clearly revolved around Gronkowski attacking the seam against the Browns.  But being featured in the offense affected him negatively.  

Gronk botched the opening kickoff, giving the Browns a short field and an early lead.  And late in the half, he fumbled near the Cleveland goal line, taking potential points off the board that could have made it 17-14 or 17-10 at the half.  He's been featured in the offense much of the rest of the year, showing no ill effects from that early failure.  But you can't be sure how he'll respond in his first playoff game, and it could spell trouble if he plays like he did against Cleveland.

Hernandez played much better early in the year, though he hasn't had any bad games at all and faced tighter coverage once his skills became known throughout the league.  He did miss the last two games with injuries, and with the playoff bye week he hasn't played any meaningful football in almost a month.  Based on that, he could start slowly against the Jets; but given his performance this year he shouldn't have any trouble with playoff intensity.

Devin McCourty is another story entirely.  His play improved just about every week this year, and he helped shut down Braylon Edwards in the second Jets game.  He was their best corner by far this year, and should continue to shine.  Probably won't shut anyone out, but playoffs or no playoffs he is a very good corner who can out-physical or out-technique just about any receiver.

It would be shocking if McCourty wilts in the playoffs.  He played like a seasoned veteran all year, and has become a corner that teams throw away from.

Quick hits:

A.  Since Ryan and Sanchez arrived in New York, the teams have split their games 2-2.  But the Patriots swept the games in Foxboro, outscoring the Jets 76-17.

B.  In the regular season, Tom Brady is on a 28-game winning streak at home.  In the post-season, he's on a 1-game losing streak.

C.  For all the injuries on the defensive line, and despite facing 7 of the top 20 running backs in the league, the Patriots allowed only one 100-yard rusher this year (trivia question: can you name that player... answer below).

D.  The Patriots are 16-3 after a bye week under Bill Belichick.


This game does not look like a repeat of the last one.  The Jets won't come out as flat and the Patriots probably won't be as dominant.  But even so, it's tough to come up with a scenario where the Jets win unless they either (a) win the turnover battle by a lot, or (b) get scores on defense and/or special teams.  And the Patriots set the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season (10), so neither scenario seem likely.

It is the NFL, so don't take anything for granted.  But the Patriots should be able to handle the elements and anything the Jets defense throws at them.  And if the offense scores in the high-20s or low-30s, that puts too much pressure on Mark Sanchez, who isn't quite ready to back up Rex Ryan's bold statements.

Post-season Water-cooler Wisdom: "Literally, all the Pats have to do to win is protect the football.  In the end, if they win the turnover battle, they will win the game."

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

PPS.  Trivia answer:
Cleveland's Peyton Hillis ran for 184 yards in the Patriots most recent loss -- 11/7/2010.

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