With a two-game lead in the abysmal AFC East, the Patriots (6-5) are a near lock to clinch a playoff spot sometime within the final five weeks of the regular season. The only question that remains going into Sundays game against the Jets (2-9) is whether New England can actually resemble a playoff team between now and then.
Legitimate playoff contenders establish a consistent ground game while blending in a reliable passing attack that keeps the clock moving on offense. A playoff defense, in turn, keeps big plays to a minimum and gets off the field on third down. Blame it on injuries. Blame it on play calling. Blame it on new coordinators. The ugly truth is that the Patriots have not played one solid, cohesive football game for 60 minutes on both offense and defense all season.
A good team really starts making a push at this point (in the season), Tom Brady said. We just haven't played the way we're capable this year for an extended period of time. Each of the games have been tough. Even the games we won have been tough.
The good news is that Sundays game against New York provides as good a chance as any to be the week the Patriots can at least feign some balance. Who knows -- it might be their only chance for a laugher.
The Jets come into Foxboro having scored an NFL-low 12.7 points per game. The Patriots struggling defense -- especially the secondary -- undoubtedly welcomes quarterback Brooks Bollinger and his 69.8 passer rating with open arms.
To be fair, it hasnt really matter who has manned the helm for the opposition lately when it comes to success passing the football on New England. Just ask Gus Frerotte and Kelly Holcomb, both of whom had 300-yard games. But they also had strong running attacks, something the Jets do not boast right now.
The ever-durable Curtis Martin, battling an ailing knee for most of the season, has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. The Jets, a run-first ball club since they acquired Martin in 1998, have resorted to passing the ball on 103 out of 146 first down plays.
The Patriots have cut down on the yardage theyve yielded on the ground over the past four games, but they are still allowing opposing offenses to control the clock with the running attack. Last week, the Chiefs were able to establish the run early and eventually burn the Patriots thin secondary with run fakes. Players such as Vince Wilfork, Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel have under-performed of late, leaving the rest of the defense overcompensating in what has been a vain attempt to cover weaknesses.
Team defense is team defense. Everything is interrelated. Everything affects everything else to a degree, said coach Bill Belichick. All of the positions affect other positions. They don't play those positions, but there's still an overall defensive system in place. There's certainly ramifications from the defensive line to the secondary and vice versa and all of the players in between.
Similar to the Chiefs, the Jets have some dangerous vertical passing threats. Laveraneus Coles leads the team with 53 receptions. He could have a big day if the Pats cant stop the run and the safeties are forced closer to the snap. On the other side, Justin McCareins leads the team with 18.2 yards per reception.
Bollinger is coming off his best game as a pro against New Orleans (19-for-28, 251 yards and a touchdown). But that game was at home in the Meadowlands, where his passer rating is 106.0. On the road, the rookie has just a 46.4 rating. If Bollinger becomes the fifth straight quarterback to throw for 300-plus yards against the Patriots, it may be the lowest of the lows so far for this defense.
The Patriots did take a step forward last week with their red zone defense, forcing Kansas City to kick four field goals in five trips.
Third downs, red area, that's a big part of defensive football, said Belichick. That is where you get the ball back offensively I don't think you can minimize the impact of those situations.
Getting the ball in Tom Bradys hands didnt do much good last week. The normally steady quarterback was off target all day, leading to four interceptions, three of which were tipped by receivers. Expect Brady to be hitting his receivers on the numbers and in stride a lot more this week. He has always bounced back after bad outings throughout his career, regardless of the opponent.
The Jets defense is fourth in the NFL against the pass (173.5 yards per game), but Brady will be a man on a mission -- with healthier receivers to boot. David Givens, listed as questionable with a knee injury, is reportedly close to returning to the field. Meanwhile, Tim Dwight and Troy Brown have also recovered enough from their ailments to be left off this weeks injury report.
New Yorks pass defense wont make it easy for Brady to rebound from last week. Opposing quarterbacks have just a 74.0 rating (13 INT, 10 TD) against the Jets this year. In sharp contrast to New Englands secondary, the longest pass play the Jets have given up this season was 49 yards.
Former Pats cornerback Ty Law will undoubtedly play with extra fire this week against his former team. Law leads New York with five interceptions and 11 passes defended, but he also has been called for 10 interference penalties. The ultra-competitive Brady will surely test his former teammate to see if he has lost a step after his ankle injury last season. Law lines up exclusively on the right side and will defend different receivers based on the play call and personnel.
Corey Dillon may be back on the field this week as well. His ankle is likely as close to 100 percent as it will get three months into the season. New England can probably afford to ease him back into action against a Jets defense that gives up 136 rushing yards per game (30th).
Heath Evans and Patrick Pass wont be entirely forgotten if Dillon plays. In fact, if either backup shows explosiveness early on against the Jets porous rush defense, Dillon may be the one who finds himself sitting down.
The return of Kevin Faulk is also imminent. The third-down back participated in practice during the week after being out since Week 4 with a broken foot. Faulk could see some draw plays and screens put into the game plan for him if he is healthy enough to return.
Hes taken a few reps on the scout team and running our stuff, said Belichick. (Were) just trying to get (him) back into it, get him hit a few times. Well see hows he doing. I think were going to have to back down a little bit (on Friday) and take another look at him (before the game) on Sunday.
What to look for: Can the Patriots keep Brady upright? The Jets have sacked the quarterback just 16 times this season, the same number that New Englands stagnant pass rush has managed. But Brady has gone down three times in each of the last two games. John Abraham, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks, is the type of player that could change the game with a strip sack if he isnt contained. Dewayne Robertson (three sacks) and Shaun Ellis (2.5) are also due to add to relatively low sack totals. Rookies Logan Mankins and Nick Kaczur have been solid protecting the left side, but they will need plenty of help from tight ends Daniel Graham and Ben Watson on passing downs.
Notes: Safety Michael Stone was added to the Patriots injury report this week with an ankle injury. Rookie James Sanders, who is also listed as questionable (ankle) this week but participated in practice, could start if Stone is unable to play. All four of Bollingers interceptions came against the Carolina Panthers. The Patriots have defeated the Jets four straight times. Jonathan Vilma leads the league with 121 tackles. Adam Vinatieri needs six points to surpass Gino Cappelletti (1,130 points) as the teams all-time leading scorer. With Atrell Hawkins start in Kansas City last week, New England has now used eight different starters at safety this season. When asked what kind of reception Law would receive at Gillette Stadium, Brady said, The fans love him here. They will always love him here. We all miss him and miss having him in the locker room. He is going to compete as hard as he has all season to try to make sure we do miss him.
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