To hear the Patriots tell it, this is the only game of the year…
[Fans: Please note that the Patriots at Jets game takes place on Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. east coast time.]
The New England Patriots head to New York to play their division rival Jets on Saturday night. As far as the league is concerned, this will be the fifteenth game of the season. But for the Patriots, this is the only game. Head coach Bill Belichick has set the tone for the organization, repeatedly saying that one cannot look ahead, but rather must focus on the game at hand.
Several players have clearly internalized this mantra, to the point where Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour has said that each year is essentially a set of 16 one-game seasons.
With so much at stake, it will take that kind of focus to beat the Jets this weekend. The 12-2 Patriots currently have a tenuous hold on the top seed in the AFC playoff picture, which would give them the tremendous advantage of a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But hot on their heels are the 12-2 Kansas City Chiefs and the 11-3 Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots control their own destiny but must win their final two games to seal their fate at the top of the AFC food chain.
Standing in their way this weekend are the 6-8 New York Jets. Last year, the Jets scored a big win in New England in December, setting up the Jets' eventual division title. This year, however, the Jets are already mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Beating New England now could very well dramatically damage the Patriots' chances of getting to the Super Bowl by forcing them to play at least one road game on their way to The Big Game. Thus, the Jets have all the more motivation beyond their natural rivalry to trip up the Patriots.
Here is a look at some of the principals in the upcoming contest:
The Patriots have faced seven 1,000-yard rushers this season, and although the Jets' Curtis Martin (#28) is one of them, none of the others have the pedigree that he has established. Martin passed the 1,000-mark last week with a dominating 174-yard performance, and in so doing became just the second player in NFL history to exceed that barrier for nine straight years beginning with his first in the league.
The only other player to do it was the now-retired Barry Sanders. Martin is truly in rarefied air.
However, the Patriots have faced tough rushers this season and have had success in stopping them. Only Denver's Clinton Portis has run for more than 100 yards in a game against the Patriots, and no team has scored a rushing touchdown against them since November 3rd. New England is giving up an average of just under 69 yards per game to the opposing team's leading rusher.
Perhaps more impressively, the Patriots are not allowing themselves to be gashed by a big gain. To date, Washington's Trung Canidate has the longest run of any lead back with a 20-yard gain. To the extent a running back is breaking through the line, New England's hard-hitting secondary of Rodney Harrison (#37), who is second on the team in tackles with 110, and Eugene Wilson (#26) are making the necessary saving tackles.
They will have to be at their best against Martin, however, who is clearly finding his stride. After rushing for no more than 88 yards in any game during the first half of the season, he has four 100-yard outings in his last eight games.
Ty Law and Tyrone Poole
The Patriots' secondary is more than just Harrison and Wilson. Cornerbacks Law (#24) and Poole (#38) have been consistently dominating opposing receivers this season. Law has five interceptions this season including one returned for a touchdown, and he was just named to his third straight Pro Bowl and fourth of his career.
Poole, meanwhile, leads the team with six interceptions and would have had one returned for a touchdown last week had he not slowed up and allowed the Jacksonville Jaguars' LaBrandon Toefield to catch him from behind.
Both Law and Poole have been playing the ball as well as any defenders in the league, regularly making acrobatic stops. Both have 15 passes defended, the second-highest career total for each player. The pair also uses excellent technique in wrapping-up receivers; Law has 51 tackles and Poole 47.
They will be facing a dangerous set of receivers this weekend. New York's Santana Moss (#83) has finally, in his third season, taken over the duties of a number-one receiver expected of the former first-round draft pick. He leads the team with 62 catches for 987 yards, but most impressively, he has scored 10 touchdowns this year. He is a very fast and shifty 5-10, 185 pounds and 41 of his 62 catches have resulted in a first down for his offense.
Moss is a favorite target of Jets quarterback Chad Pennington (#10). When the Patriots beat the Jets earlier this season in Foxboro, Pennington was out with a broken hand and back-up Vinnie Testaverde was able to produce scoring drives of just 3 field goals a single touchdown. But he also threw an interception that the Patriots returned for a score.
Pennington, on the other hand, had a field day the last time he played the Patriots. Last December, in a game that foretold the Jets' eventual division championship over New England and Miami, Pennington keyed a New York win with a 285 yard passing performance for 3 touchdowns.
Despite Moss' production (he ranks as the league's 13th most productive receiver, while Patriots leading receiver Deion Branch ranks 29th), the Jets as a team have just average output in the passing game. The Jets are 17th in the league with 219.6 passing yards per game, while New England is 10th with 236.4.
And Law and Poole can combine to take Moss away from the Jets' plans. They held him to just one catch for 17 yards in their first meeting this year. New York's most productive receiver in that game was Curtis Conway (#81), who had five catches for 70 yards. Wayne Chrebet had the Jets' sole touchdown but he has been placed on injured reserve and is out for the rest of the season.
Overall, the Patriots pass defense has been able to take away the opposition's leading receiver this season, giving up 100 yards to a single pass catcher just once (102 yards to the Dolphins' Randy McMichael in Miami). The Patriots have allowed a receiving touchdown in just half of their 14 games this season, and they have allowed more than one receiving touchdown in just two of those seven games (two against Houston and three at Indianapolis).
Jets Linebackers and Sean Ellis
The New York defense ranks just 21st in the league but features some very tough linebackers. Sam Cowart (#56) leads the team in tackles with a whopping 130, good for 6th-best in the league. He is listed on his team's injury report this week with a thigh bruise (he is the only Jet listed with any injury), but his status is probable. He had seven tackles against New England earlier this year, which is a solid number for most linebackers but just an average performance for him.
Middle linebacker Marvin Jones (#55) is also a force for the Jets. He has 104 tackles this season and 29 against the Patriots over the past two years (2001 through their first game earlier this season).
Rookie Victor Hobson (#54) only has 48 tackles this season but also has two sacks, which ties him with fellow outside linebacker Cowart.
The Jets linebackers' jobs are made easier by the pass rush that defensive end Sean Ellis (#92) is able to generate. Ellis already has 11.5 sacks this season, helping the Jets to a total sacks figure (34) that is already four better than their output for the entire 2002 season. The Patriots will have to account for Ellis, perhaps with an extra blocker like tight end Daniel Graham (#82), who helped limit Miami's Jason Taylor and Adewale Ogunleye to just 1-1/2 sacks between them two weeks ago. But that could free the Jets linebackers to make plays.
* The Jets have not scored a touchdown in two straight games, but, to be fair, last week's game was in a snowstorm and neither team got into the end zone; the final score was 6-0.
* The Patriots have the lowest points-allowed average in the AFC, giving up just 13.9 points per game.
* The Patriots have had a series of problems with the long-snapping position. First they lost top snapper Lonie Paxton on December 10th to a leg injury, and then they lost his replacement, Sean McDermott, on December 17th to a shoulder injury. The team this week signed Brian Kinchen (#46) to handle the duties. Kinchen played for head coach Bill Belichick in Cleveland and snapped to holder Ken Walter (#13) when the two played together in Carolina. Kinchen is 38 years old and has been out of football for two years but the Patriots are counting on his experience, particularly his familiarity with Walter, to give them some stability at the position.
* As first reported by Patriots Insider, New England and the Jets each had two players selected to the Pro Bowl team this year. The roster was released on Thursday adternoon and included New England's Ty Law and defensive tackle Richard Seymour (#93), and New York's Sean Ellis and center Kevin Mawae (#68). The fact that the 6-and-8 Jets had as many players selected as the 12-and-2 Patriots simply reinforces the parity in the league and the fact that the Patriots cannot rest on their record but must take every opponent seriously.