On Thursday night the New England Patriots (7-3) will travel down to New Jersey to take on the division rival New York Jets (4-6). It’s the second and final matchup between these two teams in the 2012 regular season. Currently sitting with a three game lead in the AFC East, the Patriots have an opportunity to put the division out of reach.
The Patriots and Jets first faced off at Gillette Stadium in week seven. The Patriots took a 23-13 lead into the fourth quarter of that game but then a familiar problem arose. The offense was unable to move the ball like they had earlier in the game and, combined with the defense unable to stop the Jets passing game, the visitors came back to take the lead late. The offense did get it together enough to make one last drive to set up a Stephen Gostkowski game tying field goal.
The Patriots started overtime by driving 54 yards on 12 plays which set up a 48-yard field goal by Gostkowski giving the Patriots the lead. With the new overtime rules this season, the Jets had an opportunity to kick a tying field goal or win the game with a touchdown. But the defense stood tall and defensive end Rob Ninkovich stopped the Jets forcing a Mark Sanchez fumble which was recovered by the Patriots sealing the win.
While the Patriots defense has struggled this season, so has the Jets offense. They currently rank 29th in both total yards (301.3) and passing yards (192.7) per game. They have had slightly better success in the running game where they rank 15th with 108.6 yards per game. They rank 23rd in the league in scoring with just 20.2 points per game.
Sanchez started the year as the Jets starting quarterback and has retained that position all season but has struggled. Many have called for him to be replaced by Tim Tebow and some expected that to come soon but recently that expectation changed. Several anonymous Jets players told a New York newspaper that they don’t think Tebow has progressed this season and is incapable of running their offense. They went on to say that the third string quarterback, rookie Greg McElroy, would be a better option than Tebow. If that’s how the team feels, Sanchez will remain quarterback even though he continues to struggle.
While the Jets running game is the strongest part of their offense, it’s hardly strong. Starting running back Shonn Greene is averaging just 63 yards per game this year. On Sunday against the St. Louis Rams, the Jets gave more carries to Bilal Powell and some to third string running back Joe McKnight. With Greene’s lack of success this season and the strength of the Patriots rush defense, expect more carries for the backups.
Stopping the run is one of the keys to the Patriots success Sunday night. The Patriots this season rank 10th in the league in run defense giving up just 99 yards a game on the ground. In the first matchup Greene was held to just 54 yards on 16 carries. The challenge for the Patriots will be stopping McKnight. In the last matchup he gained 23 yards on 7 carries and he or Powell will likely carry the ball more this weekend.
Just like in the last matchup, the Jets will be without their star receiver Santonio Holmes. In the first meeting between these two teams, his place in the offense was taken by wide receiver Jeremy Kerley and tight end Dustin Keller that did most of the damage. Kerley ended up with 7 receptions for 120 yards and Keller had 7 catches for 93 yards. In that game Stephen Hill was seen as a threat but had key drops during the contest. Hill ended the last game against the Patriots with only 4 catches for 55 yards.
Stopping Kerley will be a point of emphasis for the Patriots and that will mean using Aqib Talib to stop him. Jets head coach Rex Ryan has suggested that the Jets may stay away from Talib Sunday night so using him against Kerley may force Sanchez to target Hill. Stopping Hill will be the job of Kyle Arrington. If he has trouble, Devin McCourty will be back at safety Sunday night where he has had great success the last two weeks.
The Jets defense is much better than their offense ranking 14th in total yards with 342 per game. Their strength is their passing defense which gives up 200.1 yards per game ranking 4th in the league. But their rush defense is 30th giving up 141.9 yards per game. That’s where the Patriots must hit them.
The Patriots will be without two huge offense weapons in their passing game so they will likely rely on Stevan Ridley. While Ridley didn’t have great success in the first meeting taking 17 carries for 65 yards, he has had success this season and the Jets run defense is weak. Ridley has gained over 100 yards four times this season and will be looking for revenge after a poor performance in week seven against the Jets.
Passing the ball has been made tougher for the Patriots after last week. Already missing Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski had surgery on his arm Monday and will be out at least three weeks. This will leave the offense depending on Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, and Julian Edelman against a strong Jets pass defense. A positive for the Patriots passing game is that Edelman had a breakout performance and may be back to full strength after coming back from a hand injury.
Thursday night the Patriots will look to pad their lead in the AFC East. They currently hold a three game lead over the other three teams in the division. Losing Gronkowski against the Colts damaged their chances slightly but this is a game they should win. The Patriots matchup well with the Jets and should be able to take advantage of their rival’s shortcomings. If they do win, it will go a long way to repeating as division champions.