The 5-4 Patriots return from their bye week this Sunday to face the surprising 6-3 New York Jets in a rematch of the team's Week 8 matchup which New England captured by a score of 22-17. Despite the Patriots' two-game win streak they remain in fourth place in the AFC East and will face a daunting eight-game cap to their season that will include four divisional matchups, each of which will play a major part in where they land in mid-January.
The Jets will be looking for revenge after the first contest, one they feel they let get away due to in no small part to quarterback Zach Wilson's three game-killing interceptions. Add it all up and this is a pivotal game that both teams badly need to keep their playoff hopes high. The Patriots have gone 21-2 against the Jets overall since their last loss at Gillette Stadium, which came in the 2010 AFC Divisional Round.
This one has the makings to be the biggest and most important game these two teams have played against each other since that last playoff game over 11 years ago.
Here are the key players to watch!
Coming off his first interception-free game of the season, the final eight games should be telling for the second-year quarterback as he tries to lead the Patriots offense out of the doldrums, which include rankings of 26th in offensive DVOA and 14th in points. The Jets gave Mac plenty to handle just a couple weeks ago, sacking him six times and nearly taking an interception to the house that was luckily called back. It's not hard to see how differently that game might've gone if not for a few key plays. Now we'll see what kind of strides Jones and the offense can take against a defense that has been among the league's best (6th overall in defensive DVOA). David Andrews' anticipated return should help give the offense a boost, as the protection up front will be critical for Mac to find a rhythm.
While Stevenson has been an emerging target in the passing game with 22 targets over the last three games, he's been less productive on the ground, averaging 4.05 yards per attempt over that same period. With inconsistent holes being opened in front of him, a lot of the yardage has been on Stevenson to get after contact, but there's still little doubt he's an emerging star and one of the best players on the Patriots offense. A return by Damien Harris could help Stevenson get fully back on track, but the Jets run defense is 5th in yards per attempt and their disruptive nature should continue a challenging stretch for the Patriots ground game. Some success on the ground could really help open up the Patriots offense but they'll have to earn it.
Strange played 85 percent of the snaps against the Jets then lasted just 15 snaps against the Colts as the rookie has had some recent struggles that have forced the coaching staff to insert Isaiah Wynn at left guard at times. Will the team make any other tweaks over the bye week? Or will Strange be back at his usual spot, with a potential boost provided by Andrews, whose concussion injury seemed to coincide with Strange's recent problems, along with two very tough defensive fronts? The Patriots invested a first-round pick in Strange for a reason and the team needs him to help lead the way for an offensive line that has been too inconsistent this season. Strange can expect to once again have his hands full with the Jets defensive linemen.
Judon has been a consistent menace through nine games for the Patriots and was the easy unanimous choice by Patriots Unfiltered for Defensive MVP through the first portion of the season. Once again the team will need Judon's pass rush pressure to lead the way against a Jets offensive line that has given up 21sacks this season, 12th-best in the NFL. If there's one positive wild card for the Patriots it's their pass rush, which has been dominant at times this season. If they can maintain that pace through the final eight games they should firmly be in the playoff picture in early January. After Judon failed to record a sack in 2021 after the team's late bye week, a strong performance against the Jets could put worries of a repeat performance in 2022 to rest.
McCourty's two interceptions against the Jets in Week 8 iced the win for the Patriots as Zach Wilson went into meltdown mode in the second half, robbing his team of any potential comeback attempt. Wilson's turnovers over been defining features in his matchups against the Patriots and this week New England will once again need a strong performance from McCourty and his fellow teammates in the secondary as they look to confound the young quarterback with an array of disguises and coverages. As always, McCourty should play a key role in the attempts to deceive Wilson.
Wilson's stat line from three matchups against the Patriots has been a nightmare with two touchdowns to seven interceptions and a 50.5 QB rating while going 0-3. He's also taken seven sacks in those contests. Could the Jets' key simply be their quarterback avoiding the game-changing mistakes that he's had in droves against New England? Certainly, the Patriots' run-stopping ability that can put the Jets in third and long is a major factor in forcing Wilson into unfavorable situations. The second-year quarterback will play like he has something to prove in what might be the biggest game yet in his young career as he looks to do something with the Jets that hasn't been done in over a decade.
Wilson went for six catches and 115 yards against the Patriots in Week 8, the highest output of his young career. Now, in the rematch, New England must look to contain the 10th overall pick from this year's draft, especially preventing the kind of big play scores that Wilson is more than capable of. He easily led the Jets with eight catches for 92 yards in their impressive upset of the Bills just prior to the bye week. No other Jets receiver had more than three catches in the game. Stopping New York's passing offense starts with containing the rookie receiver.
Williams now has seven sacks on the season, tying his career high with eight games still left to go. He's been a disruptive force all season long for the Jets and should be a key part of the Patriots offensive gameplan. But as an interior defensive lineman it's harder to account for Williams and the Jets would be wise to test the left guard spot, with the assumption that Cole Strange will be back as the starter. Finding a way to move Williams in the running game is another tough task, as the former third-overall pick is living up to expectations in his fifth season, on pace to set career highs across the board.
Just a couple weeks after Bill Belichick admitted Mosely had a good bead on the Patriots offense, they'll get another chance to deceive the talented second-level playmaker who has speed and a knack for getting to the ball. Perhaps the toughest assignment will be in the run game, where the Patriots offensive linemen will look to get to the second level and cut off Mosely to spring some big gains for their running backs. For an offensive line that has struggled to consistent open holes of late, Mosely could be a major thorn in the side of New England's gameplan. Especially if he's calling out plays before they happen again.
Gardner picked up his second interception of the year in an impressive upset win over the Bills as the fourth-overall pick is playing like the top rookie in the league. His shutdown corner skills are likely to get applied to top target Jakobi Meyers, the only productive receiver in the Patriots offense to this point in the season. Last time, Gardner allowed just two completions on three targets for a total of -4 yards on single completions to Meyers and Jonnu Smith. The Pats could avoid testing Gardner once again but with limited production from their receivers lately, it could be challenging to get away from the rookie ballhawk, especially in key passing moments where Meyers is cleary the top target.