Can the Boston-New York rivalry get any more intense? With the Yankees and
Red Sox finishing up another passionate American League Championship Series,
Sunday's upcoming battle of unbeaten, 5-0 AFC East Division rivals will serve
to add fuel to a white-hot fire between the two northeastern cities..
"It's not quite Red Sox-Yankees," Patriots cornerback Ty Law said of football's version of the New York-New England rivalry, "but both of us are undefeated and both trying to get one up and be in first place. That's very important right now."
It doesn't get much better than this. The Patriots have won 20 straight games
and can surpass the 1933-34 Chicago Bears for consecutive regular season wins
with a victory over the Jets. They have won 14 straight games at Gillette Stadium,
including 12 in the regular season.
New England's last home loss? Dec. 22, 2002 to the New York Jets. In fact, until last year's 23-16 win over the Vinny Testaverde-led Jets at Gillette, New York had won five straight times in Foxborough.
That December 2002 Jets win was Chad Pennington's first and only start in Foxborough
and he had a big night against the Patriots in a game that all but eliminated
New England from defending their 2001 division title and world championship.
The Jets went on to capture the division with a 9-7 record.
The point is that New York will hardly be intimidated by the Patriots lengthy winning streak or recent home dominance. New England is readying for a Jets team with something to prove, a team looking to take over sole possession of first place, remain undefeated, beat the defending champs on the road and make a statement heard around the league by ending the Patriots 20-game winning streak.
The 2002 Patriots couldn't handle the notion that everyone was gunning for them. Law believes this team has been better prepared for the pratfalls that await a champion and understands that every team on the schedule feels it can end the streak.
"We knew it before, but it's reality," Law said. "Everyone is giving you their best shot to make a name off you. It's like a young player. When I got a chance to play against Jerry Rice, that was my opportunity. That's what other teams are thinking now. This is the standard for which all teams are supposed to be. It's 'let's go out and beat them and see how we match up.'"
The Patriots matched up well last year when they riddled the young Jets quarterback. Pennington's five interceptions in the last meeting between the clubs last year were highly uncharacteristic, and the 2004 Jets offense seems to be churning on all cylinders behind its young, phenomenal quarterback and the NFL's leading rusher - Curtis Martin.
The Patriots match that with two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback Tom Brady
and running back Corey Dillon, who is on pace to break Martin's Patriots franchise
rushing record. Both teams have solid, even if unspectacular receiving corps
and a decent tight end.
So this game is not only a battle for first place between undefeated division rivals, but it is Pennington vs. Brady and Martin vs. Dillon - the highest profile offensive stars on each club.
That's why this game will be decided by which defense can find the way to slow those offensive playmakers. That would seem to give the Patriots an edge, especially playing at home. But New England's unit, unlike last year when it dominated opponents while finishing ranked seventh overall, has made its fragile living in the red zone by limiting opponents to just six touchdowns in 22 trips inside its 20 (27.3 percent) while ranked 19th in the league.
That's the way the 2001 Patriots won a championship with a defense ranked 24th overall. It worked back then and it's working now. Red zone defense starts with tightening up the run defense when your back is against the wall, a theory that will be tested by Martin.
"You can't let them run the ball in," Patriots head coach Bile Belichick said. "If you can't stop the run in the red zone, then you are going to have no red zone defense. It's always harder to throw down there because you have less space. If you can force a team to pass, you have less area to cover. Defensively in the passing game, you try to take advantage of the spacing on the field and cut down on the throwing lanes."
That task will be tougher than normal this week with a Jets offense that has found the end zone on 10-of-16 red zone trips behind Pennington, who has never thrown a red zone interception and Martin, who already has rushed for six touchdowns. It would seem that bend-but-don't-break would be a risky style to play against a patient Jets offense content to work the ball down the field with its running game and high-percentage passing attack led by Pennington and his 70.4 completion percentage.
The Jets have a new look defense that's ranked eighth in the league. It's much different in both personnel and style than what the Patriots have seen under Herm Edwards' watch in the past few seasons when defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's unit failed to rank higher than 28th against the run.
Cottrell is out and Donnie Henderson is the new coordinator. His unit currently ranks eighth against the run after an overhaul that saw the unit get younger, faster and more aggressive. Henderson has strayed from the straight cover-two the Jets have played almost exclusively recently and has his club playing more man-to-man coverage so that he can blitz more and try to create some favorable one-on-one matchups for edge rushers John Abraham and Shaun Ellis. It's no accident that Abraham has seven sacks in five games.
Belichick, for one, appreciates the tough decisions Edwards had to make this offseason to fire a respected coordinator and move on from long-time Jets like Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis.
"I have a lot of respect for Herman Edwards," Belichick began. "Just looking at some of his comments and some the things he said after last season about trying to get faster defensively and needing to stop the run better ... he made a lot of changes on the defensive side of the ball. I am sure he had a lot of tough decisions, not only on the coaching end, but with some of the players that had been there for a long time and had played a lot of football for the Jets that aren't there this year and have been replaced by a lot of young guys. I admire what he has done and how well they are playing defensively.
"They are fast on defense. They turn the ball over a lot. Their coverage is tighter. They cause you protection problems and you don't have time to hold the ball. They have changed their personnel, but also their style, and it has been very effective."
Early on, the Jets seemed to experience some growing pains in wins over Cincinnati and San Diego in which they allowed 24 and 28 points, respectively. But they have allowed just 37 points in three games since then and come to Foxborough after pitching a second half shutout in a 22-14 comeback win over the 49ers.
The Patriots offense, meanwhile, has sputtered somewhat without wideouts Troy Brown and Deion Branch, which will make things difficult for Brady and company. It should all make for another memorable New York-New England matchup just days after another seven-game Yankees-Red Sox series that was an instant classic.
"We're playing for first place, but they were playing for a World Series," Law said. "They can have the headlines and we'll just go play in Sunday."
SERIES HISTORY - 89th meeting. Jets lead series 47-39-1, but the Patriots have won four of the last five including a sweep last year.
--This week's matchup between the 5-0 Patriots and 5-0 Jets marks only the fourth time in the NFL's 85-year history that two undefeated teams with five or more wins have faced each other. It's been 31 years since it happened, back on Oct. 28, 1973 when the 6-0 Vikings knocked off the 6-0 Rams by a 10-9 count in Minnesota. It also happened on Nov. 13, 1921 and Nov. 4, 1923.
--The 6-0 Buffalo All-Americans and 7-0 Akron Pros finished their 1921 matchup in a scoreless tie in Buffalo while the 5-0 Canton Bulldogs edged the 5-0 Chicago Cardinals 7-3 in the Windy City, making the home teams 1-1-1 in the meetings of undefeated clubs. The Patriots have been 5-0 one other time (1974) and never been 6-0 before while the Jets 5-0 start is their best ever.
--The Patriots and Jets have split the season series in three of the last five years. Bill Belichick's first Patriots team lost twice to the Al Groh-led Jets in 2000, and his 2003 championship club swept the Jets. But in 1999, 2001 and 2002, each team won on the road.
Last year's games, as is typically the case, were both close despite strong defensive play by the Patriots. Asante Samuel returned a Vinny Testaverde interception 55 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the first meeting to break open a 16-9 game that New England won 23-16. The Patriots lost in Washington the following week before beginning their lengthy winning streak.
Interceptions ruled the second meeting with New England picking off Chad Pennington five times in a 21-16 win. Willie McGinest returned one for a touchdown and Tedy Bruschi's pick set up a 35-yard Tom Brady-to-David Givens touchdown pass. Eugene Wilson, Ty Law and Rodney Harrison all had one interception.
The Patriots-Jets ties have dwindled since Herm Edwards took over in New York for the Parcells-Groh-Belichick gang. The Patriots had five former Jets on the roster last year, but only Roman Phifer remains. But Bill Belichick, Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Brad Seely have all coached for the Jets.
New England has been getting a solid contribution from undrafted rookie cornerback Randall Gay, who has been the Patriots nickel back when Tyrone Poole has been out as well as the regular dime back. His play has drawn notice from the team's veteran defensive backs and Ty Law in particular.
"He's been doing great," Law said. "He's one of those guys who is eager to learn, asks questions and is very level headed. We'll give him a couple more games and then he's not a rookie anymore. We'll expect more from him each week."
Gay played an injury-marred career at LSU, but Belichick knew of his ability
because of his close relationship with LSU head coach Nick Saban.
"He's not experienced so there are a lot of things he hasn't seen," Belichick cautioned. "But he is picking it up quickly. He comes from a good system where he was well coached in college. Fundamentally, he's sound. He's been fairly productive on defense and in the kicking game. As players get playtime, if they are productive, they get more. If he continues to take advantage of his opportunities, then he will play more."
BY THE NUMBERS: 1,373,481 - the total attendance at the 20 games during
the Patriots' winning streak.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If he is open." - a deadpanned Bill Belichick when asked if Bethel Johnson's pass-catching opportunities will increase after his incredible diving reception in last week's win over Seattle, which came one week after Johnson was benched.
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