For the second time in a little more than a month, AFC East rivals will meet when the New England Patriots match up against the New York Jets at 1 p.m. ET Sunday on CBS. The Patriots (5-1) are in first place in the division and riding high following last week’s dramatic win over the Saints, but also are dealing with several key injuries. The Jets (3-3) are hanging tough at .500, but need to rebound after managing just six points in last week’s home to loss to the Steelers.
The Patriots beat the Jets 13-10 in Foxboro back in Week 2 despite Tom Brady throwing for just 185 yards and the offense scoring one touchdown and picking up nine first downs. New York rookie quarterback Geno Smith had three interceptions in that game, all of them coming in the fourth quarter, which spoiled an otherwise impressive performance by the Jets defense.
4 Things to Watch
What Has Geno Learned Since Week 2?
Geno Smith looked and played the part of inexperienced NFL quarterback in his first game against New England back in Week 2. Making just his second career start, Smith completed 15 of 35 passes for 214 yards and tossed three costly interceptions. All of his picks came in the fourth quarter with the Jets trailing by just a field goal. Since then, Smith has gone through the expected highs and lows of being a rookie starting quarterback. He had his first 300-yard game in a win over Buffalo in Week 3, followed by a four-turnover disaster on the road against Tennessee. Smith bounced back in a big way the following week, as he completed all but four of his attempts (16-of-20) and tossed a career-best three touchdowns, as the Jets knocked off the Falcons in their own building on “Monday Night Football.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to build on this game, as the Steelers picked the rookie off twice in last week’s 19-6 defeat at home. The Jets not only hung with the Patriots on the road in their first meeting, they may have been able to leave Gillette Stadium with a victory if not for Smith’s late miscues. He has to show that he has learned from these mistakes and play more like he did against the Bills and Falcons if he wants to give his team a chance to win on Sunday.
The Return of Ridley?
Stevan Ridley had a breakthrough 2012 season, finishing seventh in the NFL with 1,263 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. He got off to a brutal start this season, picking up a total of 174 yards on 47 carries (3.7 ypc) and no touchdowns through the first four games. Ridley missed the Patriots’ Week 5 loss to the Bengals with a knee injury, but returned with a vengeance last week. He was instrumental in the Patriots’ comeback victory against the Saints, finishing the game with 96 yards and two scores on a season-high 20 carries (4.8 ypc). Due to his early-season struggles, Ridley had been ceding carries to LeGarrette Blount. After some early success Blount too has struggled, which kept the door open for Ridley to re-establish himself as the Patriots’ top ball-carrier. With the injuries New England is dealing with to its receiving corps and the uncertainty and confusion surrounding Rob Gronkowski’s playing status, the Patriots need to be able to run the ball to help open things up for Tom Brady. Ridley was the man for the job last season, and if last week’s performance was any indication, he’s ready to handle the load once again.
Patriots Digging Deep on Defense
New England’s defensive depth chart has undergone significant changes in just the past three weeks alone. The first blow came in Week 4 when All-Pro defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, the anchor of the Patriots’ line, was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles. Then last week, came the double-shot of linebacker Jerod Mayo tearing his pectoral muscle and cornerback Aqib Talib injuring his hip in the win over New Orleans. Mayo, the team’s leading tackler and one of the defensive captains, is done for the season, while Talib may not be play on Sunday because of his hip flexor injury. The Patriots have already lost two of their defensive stalwarts and leaders and could be down a third, meaning others on the roster will have to step up. Wilfork, Mayo and Talib rarely left the field, so several Patriot defenders will see increased playing time this week and moving forward, but with that comes additional responsibilities. New England has allowed 341 or more yards of offense in each of its last three games, and it will need sizable contributions from largely untested players if it hopes to reverse that trend.
Quarterbacks Can’t Do It All
Brady truly was “Tom Terrific” in the game-winning drive against New Orleans last week, however, even he knows that he can’t do it all by himself. He needed clutch catches from Julian Edelman to get into the red zone and then one from Kenbrell Thompkins to finish the drive. With Amendola likely to miss this game because of a concussion, and no one knowing what Gronkowski’s status is, the other Patriot pass-catchers will need to do their part. In the first game against the Jets, Brady was 19-of-39 for 185 yards and a touchdown. Edelman led the way with 13 catches for 78 yards, while the rest of the team combined for six grabs (on 21 targets) for 107 yards and a touchdown, a 39-yard hookup with Aaron Dobson. For the Jets, Smith also needs his weapons to make plays for him, especially with Santonio Holmes (hamstring) and Kellen Winslow (suspension) not available. Stephen Hill leads the team with 18 receptions for 300 yards and a touchdown. Fellow wideout Jeremy Kerley has 16 catches and a score and tight end Jeff Cumberland is tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions. The Patriots’ pass defense may be a little more vulnerable on Sunday with Mayo out and Talib dealing with a hip injury. It’s just a matter of Smith making a good throw and whichever Jet it is on the other end finishing the play.
New England Key Player: Dont’a Hightower, LB
Linebacker and defensive captain Jerod Mayo is done for the season after tearing his pectoral muscle in last week’s win against New Orleans. Hightower, the 25th overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, is expected to take Mayo’s spot on the field and the second-year pro also will wear the communication device in his helmet. A consensus All-American in 2011 as a junior at Alabama, Hightower’s talent is obvious but he has yet to have much of an impact in the NFL. Now, not only will Hightower get more playing time, he also will attempt to fill Mayo’s leadership role in the defensive huddle. The Patriots know what they had in Mayo, a tackle machine whose impact on the field went beyond his statistics. It’s Hightower who now has the opportunity to show why he was a first-round pick two drafts ago.
New York Key Player: Bilal Powell, RB
Since rushing for a season-high 149 yards against Buffalo in Week 3, Powell has gained a total of 134 yards on the ground over his last three games. The Jets are 1-2 in that span, and need more from their leading rusher if they want to beat the Patriots. In the first meeting with New England back in Week 2, Powell had 48 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries, while Chris Ivory led the way with 52 yards on 12 attempts. All told, the Jets had 129 yards rushing compared to the Patriots’ 54. Ivory injured his hamstring in Week 3, which caused him to miss one game and allowed Powell the chance to seize the lead back role. Since his return, Ivory has gotten four carries in each of the past two games, which is why Powell needs to lead the way against a Patriots rush defense that is without a pair of Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
The hope for Jets fans is that Geno Smith is not the same quarterback who threw three fourth-quarter interceptions in his first game against the Patriots. One thing that could help Smith in this respect is that he will be facing a short-handed New England defense that could be without its three top players.
However, the Patriots still have a healthy Tom Brady and even though he has yet to play a game with all of his weapons, he has continued to find ways to win. Brady is 18-4 in his career in the regular season against the Jets, with the last loss coming in Sept. 2010. To put it another way, the last time Brady lost to the Jets during the regular season Smith had yet to turn 20 years old and he was in his first season as the starting quarterback at West Virginia.
The Patriots are really hurting, and the Jets’ defense is pretty solid, but there’s a reason Brady has 141 victories in the regular season and three Super Bowl rings. Chalk up another W for the “old” veteran, as Smith’s roller coaster rookie season continues with a few more bumps in the road.
New England 23, New York 17