The New England Patriots and New York Jets have both suffered through difficult 2021 campaigns. At 2-4, coming off an overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, some have even proclaimed the Patriots are at the end of their NFL dynasty.
Lucky for them, the Jets are coming to town.
The Patriots obliterated their division rival earlier this season, a 25-6 road victory where rookie quarterback Mac Jones watched his counterpart, Zach Wilson, make far too many mistakes. The Pats' defense pressured Wilson into four turnovers, interceptions that produced 17 New England points, as the Jets were outplayed in every facet of the game.
It was the 11th straight victory for the Patriots over their division rival, a streak that dates back to a time when Barack Obama was president and Tom Brady led the Pats offense. It's the one building block left for head coach Bill Belichick as he tries to rebuild around Jones and a young offensive core.
Can the Jets fight back? Wilson has played markedly better since that game, leading to an upset against the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans a few weeks ago. He'll need to bring that energy and more into Foxborough, a place where the Jets haven't won since the 2011 AFC Divisional Playoffs. The last time Wilson's Jets won a road game, period, he was still throwing passes at BYU.
New York (1-4) at New England (2-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 24 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Zach Wilson will show up? And can he keep the Jets in the game?
Wilson showed progress against the Titans, throwing for a career-high 297 yards and 8.7 yards per attempt. His poise during the OT period was impressive, a clutch third-and-2 throw to Keelan Cole Sr. the difference-maker in earning his first NFL win.
But, as rookies often do, Wilson took a step back the next week in London. The Jets' first three offensive possessions produced a total of 16 yards and one interception. By the time Wilson got a first down, his team faced a 17-0 deficit and never fully recovered.
"We can't keep trying to come from behind," Wilson said afterward. "The NFL is too hard to always come from behind."
That's the problem with this rookie quarterback. In his first five games, the Jets have trailed at halftime by a combined score of 75-13. Wilson has yet to throw a touchdown in the first half of any of his NFL games.
The Pats' secondary had Wilson's number, as former Pro Bowler Devin McCourty, safety Adrian Phillips and cornerback J.C. Jackson each snagged at least one interception. Phillips was limited in practice this week with a back issue, but all three are expected to be on the field Sunday.
We'll see if Wilson learned from that experience back in September, his most humbling in the NFL to date. At least his confidence remains high despite these early setbacks.
"Everything's a steppingstone," Wilson told the New York Post this week. "We're building something here that's going to be special for a long time. When it's going to be super-special, we don't know, but all we have to focus on is one step at a time, throwing those bricks down and getting better. I'm excited to play these guys again. I think it's going to be a blast."
When's the last time someone called playing Belichick "a blast?" Expect that interview to be posted all over the Pats' locker room as bulletin board material.
2. Can Mac Jones keep building momentum?
Despite a losing effort, Jones might have played his best game of the year last week against the Cowboys. A season-best 10.9 yards per attempt came with a 15-for-21 effort, 229 yards, two touchdowns, and just one interception. Unfortunately, that lone mistake proved costly, run back for a touchdown by Cowboys' own young star, cornerback Trevon Diggs, to put his team up 26-21.
But that low point is when the rookie showed some resilience. On the very next play, Jones came back out and threw a bomb, a 75-yard touchdown to Kendrick Bourne that gave the Patriots the lead right back. While the Cowboys came back to tie the game, ultimately winning in overtime, it was an encouraging performance for Jones and the Pats as a whole as they battled adversity.
"We went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes," Belichick said. "They just made a few more plays than we did."
A key to Jones' recent success has been Hunter Henry's reemergence on the NFL scene. The former Chargers tight end has settled into his new digs, scoring a touchdown in three straight games and making up for the disappointing play of another free-agent signing, receiver Nelson Agholor. Expect Henry to play a major role Sunday as the Jets allow over 70 yards per game to opposing tight ends.
The Jets' defense is vulnerable against the pass, ranking just 17th in the NFL, and they're the only team left without an interception. Expect the Pats and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to stay aggressive with Jones on Sunday.
3. Which run game can get going?
Both teams have built their young offenses around pass-heavy attacks. That said, you don't win in the NFL without a solid rushing attack, and the Pats have shown signs of it around 2019 third-round pick Damien Harris. Harris rushed for 101 yards against the Cowboys for the second time this season, posting a season-high 5.6 yards per carry. With James White out for the year (hip), someone needed to settle in and carry the load.
The Jets' run game is far more unsettled. No player has rushed for more than 59 yards in any game this year, leaving them 31st overall in the NFL in rushing offense (74.0 ypg). A shoddy offensive line remains a problem, leading to just 3.56 yards per rushing attempt (30th in the NFL) while allowing Wilson to get sacked 18 times.
Facing the Pats' run defense, allowing just 3.82 yards per carry (fourth in the NFL), makes it even more difficult for the Jets to have a breakthrough. But in the first meeting between the two, you'd be surprised; the Jets were actually able to put together a season-best 152 yards on the ground. Their dual running back tandem of Michael Carter and Ty Johnson combined for 109 of those, giving hope that someone can take the pressure off Wilson within their offense.
The Pats are 0-4 at home and the Jets are 0-3 on the road, so something's got to give. While both teams are playing better as of late, it's clear Belichick has his group on a faster pace back to respectability. If the Cowboys missed a field goal to tie the game and the Pats had managed the clock better against Brady, they could be sitting at 4-2.
Expect another commanding performance against the Jets, keeping the Pats on the fringes of the AFC playoff race.
Prediction: Patriots 30, Jets 9
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.