PREDICTION: Patriots 25-17
KEYS TO THE GAME: It's critical for the Jets to avoid falling behind early to keep RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson as the focal point of the offense. QB Mark Sanchez threw three interceptions in the last meeting and his decision making has been wanting for the better part of the past two months. The Jets can't afford to fall behind and force the game onto Sanchez's right shoulder, which is still less than 100 percent from a Dec. 19 injury. The Jets need to set up play-action, but a concern is RT Wayne Hunter replacing injured Damien Woody (Achilles) and how much help he will need in pass protection.
The Jets have to find a way to get to QB Tom Brady, who was hit just three times in the last meeting. It will be a chess match between him and Jets coach Rex Ryan, who will attempt to disguise where pressure is coming from. Brady spent much of the day beating the Jets' linebackers and safeties in coverage, and CB Antonio Cromartie needs to have a better game opposite Darrelle Revis. A major problem for the Jets is the inability to generate a pass rush without blitzing, and Brady has a slew of possession receivers to attack man coverage with.
FAST FACTS: The Patriots won the last meeting, 45-3, at home on Dec. 6 with QB Tom Brady throwing for 326 yards and four touchdowns. ... New England was 8-0 at home during the regular season. ... The Jets have three playoff wins the past two seasons, equaling their total from 1987-2008. ... Brady has not thrown an interception in his past 11 games.
The Jets will be without starting right tackle Damien Woody, who is out for the season with an Achilles' tendon injury suffered in the win over Indianapolis last week. So career backup Wayne Hunter will take over Sunday at New England.
Woody left the Jets' win over Houston on Nov. 21 with a right knee injury, but played through it each of the next two games before being hurt again against Miami on Dec. 12. He then underwent arthroscopic surgery and missed the final three regular-season games before starting and playing most of the Jets' playoff win over Indianapolis on Saturday.
However, he suffered a different injury, one to his left Achilles', on the first play of the Jets' game-winning drive.
So once again the onus is on Hunter, who played well down the stretch against edge pass rushers such as Chicago's Julius Peppers and Pittsburgh's LaMarr Woodley. Hunter started the last three games of the regular season.
"I think it was just a blessing in disguise that Wayne had to play those games and he could feel confident going into a big game," said right guard Brandon Moore.
"It helped out more than I could put into words," Hunter said of the three starts. "Those three games against great defenses, I was able to play well, build some confidence and find a rhythm."
Hunter, who is in his seventh NFL season, had made only one start before 2010, and that was as an extra tight end on the first play of the Jets' victory over Tampa Bay on Dec. 13, 2009.
"I had a family to feed," said Hunter, who is in his third season with the Jets. "I was getting paid so I was helping out my family, helping out my daughters. So it was fine, (but) as far as the game goes, it was a little bit frustrating, but you don't want guys to get hurt. I was just on teams (at Seattle) that had healthy offensive linemen for a few years. When I left Seattle (after the 2005 season), guys started getting hurt."
Both center Nick Mangold and Hunter could find themselves matched up against New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork at different times Sunday. Wilfork often moves around in the Patriots' schemes, although at 325 (or so) pounds, he's not hard to find.
"Vince is the man," Hunter said. "He's strong, stout (and) hard to move. He's got a quick first move. ... He'll stop the run against anybody."
While talent almost always supersedes experience, it's hard to ignore the edge veteran-laden teams have in postseason football.
The Jets have their share of playoff veterans -- LaDainian Tomlinson, for example, played several postseason games against New England during his tenure with San Diego -- but no team has more cumulative experience in postseason play than the New England Patriots.
Although they haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004, the Patriots have remained competitive through the years and have made it to the playoffs every season except 2008, so, needless to say, there won't be any playoff jitters on their side of the field Sunday.
That's not something gained through experience alone, but rather through the ideology taught by head coach Bill Belichick from Day 1. Every game is as big as the last, and the biggest game on the schedule is always the next one. Therefore, there aren't a lot of emotional ebbs and flows in their locker room.
"I think we've been on an even-keel all year," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "Even though with this being the biggest game of the year this week, I think every day we go in knowing how important each day is. I don't think we get too high or too low. It was like that all season, and I don't expect for it to be any different now."
This attitude could be particularly helpful in big spots Sunday (if the game happens to be close). The Patriots have been down this road before, and not everyone on that New York sideline can say the same thing.
"Even though we're playing in the playoffs, we like to approach it the same way," Wilfork added. "We always approach the games the same. We hit it hard. We make sure we know what we're doing out there. We make sure we know exactly what's going on. That's the key. If we can't do that, we're in trouble.
"I think you get a lot of people pumped up, more jacked going through the pre-game on game day, so as of right now, I think we're at even-keel. Right now, we're just relaxed, going through our stuff, making our right preparations (and) getting ready for this game. Come Sunday, I am pretty sure everyone is going to be jacked up, but we've got to make sure we control ourselves because we've got to play football games."
--RG Brandon Moore (back) returned Thursday and practiced full after sitting out Wednesday's practice. He will play Sunday.
--CB Drew Coleman, the top nickel back on the Jets' depth chart, suffered a knee injury during Thursday's practice. It's unclear whether he will play Sunday, although the Jets are optimistic. If he can't play, rookie Kyle Wilson likely will take over Coleman's role.
--WR-KR Brad Smith (groin) practiced limited Thursday after sitting out Wednesday. His availability could be a game-time decision. If he can't play, CB Antonio Cromartie would return kickoffs.
--C Nick Mangold has maintained his high level of play despite battling a nagging shoulder injury since late September.
-- WR Santonio Holmes, who nearly muffed a punt in the Indianapolis game, almost certainly won't be involved with the Jets' special teams Sunday.
--QB Mark Sanchez practiced full Wednesday for the first time since he suffered a right shoulder injury at Pittsburgh on Dec. 19. Sanchez said he feels as good as he has felt in three to four weeks.
--RT Damien Woody was placed on injured reserve after suffering a left Achilles' tendon injury against the Colts. He is expected to have surgery.
-- DL Myron Pryor missed Thursday's practice with a back injury. His status does not look optimistic for Sunday and it's unlikely he'll be ready to play.
-- WR Deion Branch is still nursing a knee injury, but he's been participating in limited portions of practice this week, so he should be ready for Sunday barring any setbacks.
-- TE Aaron Hernandez participated in a limited portion of practice Thursday for the second consecutive day, though his outlook remains optimistic for Sunday considering the time he's had to recover.
-- T Sebastian Vollmer is nursing a shin injury and has participated in limited portions of practice in each of the last two days. Vollmer should be ready for Sunday.
-- LB Tully Banta-Cain is expected to play Sunday as he works his way back slowly from a groin injury. Banta-Cain has participated in limited portions of practice this week.
--DE Jermaine Cunningham is nursing a calf injury and has been limited in practice. He'll likely be a game-time decision come Sunday.