The New England Patriots will close out their 2023 regular season with a final home tilt against the New York Jets this Sunday, a team the Pats have beaten 15-straight times dating back to 2015. The 4-12 Patriots have already clinched their first last-place finish in the AFC East since 2000, however, there are plenty of permutations of how and where they might end up in this spring's draft order. Regardless of a win or loss, the Pats could find themselves as high as second overall but should stay within the top five picks.
The 6-10 Jets saw their season go sideways just a few plays into the season when quarterback Aaron Rodgers went down with a torn Achilles that cost him the entire year. Since then, New York's struggles have centered on their quarterback position where they've started four different players. Trevor Siemian is expected to be under center on Sunday, and some intriguing talent, including Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall, surrounds him. Defensively, the Jets also have some key pieces in place like Pro Bowlers Quinnen Williams and Sauce Gardner, players who could confound the Patriots offense and force mistakes that could dramatically affect the outcome.
Here's what to watch as snow is in the forecast and could make for an unforgettable atmosphere in a season-ending matchup that offers more intrigue than one might expect.
Zappe Closes it Out
Bailey Zappe endured a nightmare start in the team's eventual loss to the Buffalo Bills with four turnovers in the first six possessions that included three interceptions by Zappe. The second-year quarterback righted the ship and though he didn't lead New England to a win, he showed good resiliency in helping the Patriots get back into the game, making it competitive down to the final quarter. What will Zappe do for a finale against the Jets? For all of Mac Jones' warts, he's still gone 5-0 against the Jets over his first three seasons and now it's Zappe's turn to keep New England's dominance in place. With a potential snowstorm in the forecast it could be a unique challenge for the quarterback from Texas. The Patriots haven't been afraid to throw in the snow, see 2009's big win over the Titans as an example, but with a second-year player under center there will be some new dynamics at play. Zappe will hope to close out the season with a strong performance and a win that will help him carry some momentum into the offseason.
Who Will Turn it Over?
The Jets have 32 giveaways this season, tied with Minnesota for worst in the league, while the Patriots aren't far behind with 27 of their own. It's been a surprising season on the takeaway/giveaway front, as not only has the offense been consistently careless with the ball, the defense has just 17 takeaways tied for the sixth fewest in the NFL. That's been a lethal combination for the Pats, as losing the turnover battle has been a near-constant thorn in the team's side as they struggled to get their offense in gear and score points. They've won the turnover battle in just five games this season, all by a slim 2-to-1 margin and even still, they're 2-3 in those games. In a potentially sloppy game with weather conditions, this game is most likely going to come down to who can solve their giveaway problems most effectively for an afternoon.
If snow limits what can be done through the air it could be time for second-year running back Kevin Harris to finally get a chance to carry the load. Harris had an impressive touchdown run against the Chiefs but has followed it up with two low key games against the Broncos and Bills in which he had just nine carries for 36 yards. Ezekiel Elliott has done an admirable job taking the bulk of the reps since Rhamondre Stevenson was lost for the year but this a great audition opportunity for the second-year back Harris. He's an Exclusive Rights Free Agent and is a good bet to return to the team in 2024 but it's unclear if his ceiling is any higher than a "break in case of emergency" back. 10-plus carries against the Jets could reveal a little more about the hard-charging back from South Carolina, making life difficult in slippery conditions for would-be tacklers.
Young Patriots Defenders
Similarly, injuries to the defensive unit have provided opportunities for younger players over the final month of the season, most notably rookie cornerback Alex Austin, who has made the most of his opportunities since early December. His first interception last week was an impressive play and a sign of a player who is grasping the entirety of the defense and making strides despite only being with the team for two months. Marte Mapu and Keion White are other rookies who have come on and should get plenty of opportunities against the Jets. Offensively, Jake Andrews saw some reps at left guard and could be in line for a further increase in snaps.
Wilson has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to start his career, as his talent has transcended the rotating door of quarterbacks whom he's had to play with. No one should have been more disappointed to see Aaron Rodgers go down than Wilson, but he's continued to make the best of it, proving he's among the game's best pass catchers and a consistent problem that the Patriots will have to deal with. Wilson is a shoe-in for double-digit targets. He has 26 catches over the last four games and should once again be the primary focus of the Jets passing attack.
Ryland was unable to carry over the momentum from his game-winning kick in Denver against the Bills, as he added another miss to his season total which now stands at 15-of-24 on field goals for the year. With ugly weather hitting Foxborough, this could be Ryland's toughest test yet, especially in a game that features two of the lowest-scoring offenses in the NFL. The Patriots will need every point they can get and Ryland's kicks could very well end up being the difference. It's a good opportunity to help the Pats to a season-closing win, but it will be a big challenge for the rookie.
Williams hasn't had the same dominant All-Pro season that he had in 2022 but he remains one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in the game and one who should give the Patriots plenty to deal with. His 12 sacks from 2022 have dropped to just 3.5 in 2023, but he again will represent the AFC as a Pro Bowler, one of the players who knocked Christian Barmore from contention. Going against an interior trio that features rookies Atonio Mafi and Sidy Sow, Williams will have opportunities to attack. He's a game-wrecker and preventing him from forcing turnovers is one of the game's biggest keys.
"Baptism under fire. There'll be more this week," said Bill Belichick this week of his young offensive linemen going against the fierce Jets defensive front. "These guys are really good. They play a lot of different spots, so they're not always matched up against the same guy. You've got to block different players. They're good, they rush the good passer as well as any team we've played. With multiple guys, you've got a lot of guys to stop. [The Patriots rookie offensive linemen] learn every week. They're young players who get experience, teach some things, and hopefully it will pay off in the long run."
The Jets are likely to avoid running head-first into the Patriots stout defensive front, and that should suit running back Breece Hall just fine as Hall's emergence as a pass catcher has been a key factor for the Jets offense. His 74 catches are second-most on the team and he'll provide an interesting matchup challenge for the Patriots to contend with. Now a full season removed from his ACL tear as a rookie, Hall is regaining the form he flashed as a rookie. One way or another, Hall will be heavily involved in the attack.
Bill Belichick's future remains shrouded in mystery as the coach has maintained the one-week-at-a-time focus that has been a key tenet of his coaching career. Not surprisingly, Belichick was laser-focused on the Jets this week and refused to address any speculation about what changes could be in store when the 2024 offseason arrives on Monday. Still, it's hard to ignore that this could potentially be the last game for Belichick with the Patriots and it's a subplot that will cast a shadow on the game's conclusion, especially against the last team Belichick coached for an infamously departed.
Draft Pick Status
The first thing everyone will want to know at the game's final gun is where the Pats will be picking in this April's draft. Unfortunately given the tie breaker being Strength of Schedule, it might have to wait until the completion of the final regular season game when the Bills and Dolphins face off for the AFC East title on Sunday Night Football. Of course, we'll have you covered here at Patriots.com, and as soon as the pick is set we'll be all over it. Prior to kickoff on Week 18, the Patriots could land anywhere from second overall to fifth overall, whether they win or lose.