Inside Slant: Beating The Jets Won't Be Easy

It was a year ago, Week 16, 2002. The Patriots were clinging to their playoff hopes as they entertained the Jets at Gillette Stadium.

Earlier in the season, way back in Week 2 in fact, New England had handled the Vinny Testaverde-led Jets with ease, but Chad Pennington was at New York's helm in the second meeting and he helped put a crimp in New England's playoff aspirations by guiding a near-dominant 30-17 win over the Patriots in Foxborough. The Jets went on to win the AFC East and the Patriots went home for the playoffs.

A year later the Patriots are already division champs, but the Jets are fighting to finish at .500 and need two wins in the final two weeks to do so. Like last year, the teams meet in Week 16 and again Chad Pennington has rallied his club after it stumbled under Testaverde, who was guiding the offense back in September when New England won the first meeting. This time, the clubs meet at Giants Stadium in a Saturday night 8:30 p.m. prime time contest.

While the Jets are simply fighting for respectability, New England can secure home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for the first time ever with two more wins. But just as the Jets dealt a blow to New England's playoff chances last year, they would like nothing more than to derail New England's Super Bowl express again this time around. The Patriots are mindful of what happened last year, but don't need that loss as motivation, not in a year when simply maintaining week-to-week focus has been enough to win 10 in a row.

"We're not really thinking about payback," defensive lineman Jarvis Green said. "We're just trying to keep doing what we've been doing. We're trying to stay consistent, play better and put a good game together on both sides of the ball."

This game might have had bigger implications for New York had Pennington not missed much of the season after breaking his wrist in an August exhibition game. Since returning, he has completed 143-of-226 attempts for 1,689 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Jets are 4-3 since his return with all but one of those games being decided by one score, including two in overtime.

But regardless of their ability to play tough, the Jets are 6-8 and won three of their last four just to reach that point. The Patriots are 12-2 and winners of 10 straight. This game is critical for New England, which doesn't need any help to pave the easiest possible path to the Super Bowl. If it is a team to be reckoned with next month, it will need to take care of business against two sub-.500 teams in the next two weeks even though both are division rivals.

The players, following the lead of their unflappable head coach, are not looking at the big picture, or admitting as much anyway. They have shown an uncanny ability to focus on only the next game and, as Belichick is quick to point out, that is the Jets this week.

"Again, the most important thing now is what we can do about the Jets," Belichick stressed when asked about playoff seeding. "We really can't do anything beyond that. The Jets are coming off a good win. They ran the ball effectively and shut out the Steelers, which as we all know, is difficult to do in this league.

"We have had two tough road division games already this year and our last couple of games with the Jets have been very competitive -- more competitive than we want it to be in the next to last game of the year. We need to put our focus and energy into dealing with the Jets and the problems they bring."

Despite their disappointing record that will keep them from the postseason for the first time since 2000, the Jets do pose some problems. They have a slightly different look than when the teams met back in Week 3. Pennington is obviously healthy and long-time go-to receiver Wayne Chrebet is out for the season while Santana Moss has emerged into a star receiver rather than simply an occasional big play guy.

Rumors of Curtis Martin's demise have been put on hold as the ninth-year back has again exceeded the 1,000 mark and is fresh off a season-high 174-yard effort in snowy conditions last week against Pittsburgh's 3-4 front.

"I haven't seen it," Green said when asked if Martin had lost a step. "He's playing great. He runs to daylight. He's a very smart player and he runs smart and makes you miss."

"The biggest change [offensively] from when we saw them the first game would be Pennington and the utilization of Santana Moss," Belichick said. "Moss has been very productive and has been a much bigger part of the offense both in terms of the number of plays and also the things they are doing with him. They are trying to feature him and get him the ball more than they were earlier in the year."

Moss leads New York with 62 receptions for 987 yards and 10 touchdowns while also rushing 10 times for 67 yards and averaging 11.2 yards on 29 punt returns. He will certainly be a handful for the Patriots defense.

New York's defense, meanwhile, is enigmatic and unpredictable. It has not allowed more than 17 points over the last month and is coming off its first shutout of the season, but is ranked 31st in the NFL against the run and sixth against the pass to stand at 21st overall.

That dramatic difference in run-pass defensive ranking is always tricky to figure. Is New York's run defense so porous that teams pass less and therefore accumulate fewer yards, which inflates the pass defense ranking? There would seem to be some truth to that given the fact that Jet opponents have run the ball 492 times and thrown it only 400. By comparison, New England's opponents have thrown 532 times and run 355.

The Jets are allowing 148.6 rushing yards per game, but can the Patriots exploit that? It's a fair question. New England ran for more than 100 yards in five of its first six games, including a 147-yard effort against the Jets on Sept. 21, but they've only eclipsed the century mark once since Week 6 (128 vs. Houston), and the running game has become something that barely keeps defenses honest, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.

Defensively, New York has defensive tackle Josh Evans back, which adds another big body inside to rotate with Jason Ferguson, Dewayne Robertson, James Reed and Chester McGlockton. Bryan Thomas has replaced the injured John Abraham at end, which is a drop-off considering Abraham's ability to "ruin a game" as Belichick likes to say. The Jets also have cornerback Donnie Abraham, who didn't play in the first meeting, back on the field.

"They've had a lot of changes since we first played them and I'm not really concerned about how they played in September or October. I'm concerned about how they've played lately," Belichick said. "They've won their last three home games and are playing well."

88th meeting. Jets lead series 47-39-1. The Patriots won a 23-16 game earlier this season and have won three of the last four with the lone exception in that span coming last December when the Jets won in New England. The Patriots are 17-25 in New York but have won the last two.

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