Just two days after Christmas the Jets welcome the visiting Patriots to town. The Jets need a win just to keep a possibility of making the playoffs while the Patriots only need the win to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
It's important for this Jets team to get into the playoffs, for veterans like Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall who have never had the chance to play in the postseason and for the younger players like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson who have never tasted the playoffs. No one expects this Jets team is good enough to win the Super Bowl but getting these guys some playoff experience can go long way to making them ready for a playoff push next year. But even if the Jets finished 11-5 and missed the playoffs at least they would do so by beating the Patriots and Rex Ryan's Bills to end the season with six straight wins and a ton of confidence that can carry them into next season.
But before they can think about any of that they must first figure out a way to knock off the Patriots. Because of the way the Patriots have dominated the Jets, the division and the league for the past decade plus just playing the Patriots close is usually cause for mild celebration but close won't be good enough tomorrow. The Jets need to prove to themselves, the Patriots and the rest of the league that they are ready to compete with th best and fight their way into the playoffs.
WHEN: December 27, 2015 1 pm EST
WHERE: MetLife Stadium East Rutherford, NJ
KEYS TO THE GAME:
As always pressure Brady up the middle - The Patriots like to mix up their game plans so much every week and they do it better than anyone but there's a reason why every opponent they play has to stick with a game plan that will allow them to pressure Tom Brady up the middle, it's the only thing that ever works. Pressure from the edges can get to him on occasion but usually he'll just slide around in the pocket to avoid the rush and find an open receiver. But if the pressure comes directly at Brady he can't avoid it and he can't step up and into his throws.
The Patriots offensive line has been in shambles due to injuries, but because they are the Patriots they have found ways to patch it up and make it work. They've been relying on a heavy rotation and extra linemen and somehow it's been pretty effective but the Jets defensive front has really picked up the pressure these past few months and they will have to continue that and attack Brady early and often.
Have a plan for Gronk - Rob Gronkowski is the toughest matchup in football. You think you have a plan that could stop Gronk? Well someone has already tried that plan and it didn't work. You just have to mix up the coverages because as soon as they know what you're doing the will counter it. Gronkowski is the key to the offense and all it takes is one or two big plays from him to blow the doors off the game. I don't have the answer, no one does, but the Jets need to have a plan and just hope they can limit him enough.
Figure out how to run the ball - The last times these two squared off the Jets couldn't get anything going on the ground. Part of that had to do with Chris Ivory hurting himself on the first play of the game and part of that had to do with the Patriots loading the box to stop the run. Other teams started doing the same thing to the Jets until Fitzpatrick started throwing the ball all over the place. Run to set up the pass or pass to set up the run, it doesn't matter but they have to figure out a way to run the ball successfully. Continuing to lean in the screen game will be important as well and will open up passes downfield as well as runs.
Find ways to get Marshall open - The one thing about previewing matchups between the Patriots, it's really boring because it's basically the same thing every time. You've heard it before and you'll hear it again but what Bill Belichick does best is he takes away what his opponent does best. The Jets best weapon is Marshall and you can expect to see him draw a lot of double coverage and when that happens Fitzpatrick needs to be able to take advantage of the one-on-one matchup that Eric Decker has but they can't be content to just let Marshall be a decoy. He's simply too good, they need his play-making ability. Line Marshall up in the slot, put him in motion, run run routes to free him up. Do whatever they need to do just make sure they find different ways to get Marshall the ball.
X-FACTOR: Bilal Powell
Powell has been a huge boost to the Jets offense since he returned from his injury. He's pass protection has been great, he's contributions as a receiver has been clutch and he appears to have fresher legs than Ivory at times in the running game. Powell best ability is that he can hurt defenses in multiple ways and the Jets don't need him to put up huge numbers, just enough to make a handful of impact plays and command the the Patriots attention to open things up for his teammates.
PREDICTION: Jets 24-20
The Jets feel like they are a much better team since they last played the Patriots and it certainly seems they have found a groove over the past month. They have two comeback wins that they needed to scratch and fight for and it's likely they'll need to do the same tomorrow. Maybe the have the lead and just need to hold Brady off or maybe they need to be the ones to take a late lead to close out the game. But one way or another I expect the Jets to come out on top and beat the Patriots tomorrow afternoon.
Chris Nimbley is the Editor-in-Chief of JetsInsider.com/NYJScout.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@cnimbley), or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org)