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On Sunday afternoon at 4:25, the New England Patriots get set to take on the New York Jets, two heated divisional rivals tied atop the AFC East. One of only two late afternoon games in the NFL, all eyes will be on the battle for sole possession of first place – and a plus-.500 record. (The other 4:25pm game pits the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Oakland Raiders. Blaine Gabbert! Carson Palmer! Pick sixes! The NFL on CBS!)
The two AFC East teams are coming off very different Week 6 experiences. The Jets, after being written off due to a rash of injuries and back-to-back losses (including a 34-0 shellacking at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers), held Andrew Luck in check and trounced the Indianapolis Colts 35-9.
The Patriots, meanwhile, blew a 13-point lead with less than nine minutes left to a 5’10” quarterback in his first year in the league with the Seattle Seahawks. (Bitter? Who said anything about being bitter?)
Eminently familiar with one another, the first Jets-Patriots contest of the 2012 NFL season features intriguing matchups on both sides of the ball: the Patriots no-huddle, three-quarter offense against the Darrelle Revis-less Jets defense and the pass-deficient Jets offense, led by the equally inaccurate Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow (more on him later), versus the sieve that calls itself a secondary on the Patriots defense.
Mildly cruel pun aside, this appears to be a somewhat lopsided matchup on paper. New England is the top-ranked offense both in yardage and in scoring; New York is ranked 18th and 19th respectively in yards and points allowed per game. Mismatch, right?
If only it were that simple.
For whatever reason, the offense has vanished up one of Belichick’s nonexistent sleeves late in games. Two of the three Patriots losses have resulted from a lack of execution on offense in the fourth quarter.
In Seattle, Tom Brady led the Patriots to a miserable 1-of-6 performance in the red zone, replete with two turnovers and the disgusting intentional grounding and come away with zero points despite a gift fumble deep in Seahawks territory just before half.
In Baltimore a few weeks earlier, New England couldn’t muster enough first downs to run out the clock, let alone put up any more points to put the game out of reach.
Meanwhile, Antonio Cromartie has been playing surprisingly well as the Jets primary cornerback in Revis’s absence. Their defense managed to clamp down on the Colts passing game, one week after Luck led an epic comeback charge against the Green Bay Packers.
Unfortunately, beyond Cromartie, it seems like they won’t have enough talent or personnel to counter the Patriots offensive weapons, if only because I couldn’t name another player in their secondary. (Eric Smith? Somebody Wilson? That still doesn’t sound promising.) And considering the Jets are 27th in the league in sacks, they can’t count on their pass rush to speed up Brady’s internal clock (although they could potentially rush three ghosts and he’ll start ducking anyway).
So crazy blitz schemes concocted by Rex Ryan aside, the Patriots should be able to put up 30+ points relatively easily. Unless the Jets managed to get in the NFL’s ear to rule New England’s juiced up no-huddle offense is in fact illegal, that is.
If the Patriots are going to throw a 30-spot on the scoreboard, the Jets are going to have to find a way to match them if they want to stay competitive. The way Sanchez has been playing, that doesn’t seem likely.
He ranks 31st in the league in passer rating (70.9, just ahead of Brandon Weeden), with a 49.7 completion percentage (dead last) and only 6.4 yards per pass attempt (31st again). Sanchez’s backup, despite all the glorified media attention, isn’t exactly known for his accuracy either.
Sadly, that might not really matter against the Patriots secondary. One of the worst secondaries in NFL history in 2011, this year’s squad hasn’t improved much. They are again among the worst four pass defenses, and have given up enough plays over 20 yards to film an animated short from Pixar. Throw up enough deep balls towards Devin McCourty or whatever no-name safety is late bringing help, and the Jets are at least guaranteed a pass interference penalty.
Hopefully for the Patriots, that won’t be consistent enough to formulate an actual offense. The Patriots should win, 34-17.
Of course, with the possible wild card of Tebow lining up at running back as Shonn Greene’s backup, I suppose any miracle is possible.