The Patriots (4-2) are clearly coming off their best two weeks of football as they return to Gillette Stadium for a quick turnaround and a big Thursday night battle with the Jets (1-5). Rex Ryan's team comes to town in the midst of a very disappointing open to 2014, one that certainly could mark the end of the coach's run in New York. But given the short week, the familiarity between these two teams and the bitter emotion that's on display each time they do battle a real dog fight can't be ruled out. Nothing would make New York and its fans feel better than knocking off Bill Belichick's team. Gang Green may be rotting at its core, but taking it to a suddenly hot Tom Brady would be a nice way to try to jumpstart a potential in-season rebound. There are plenty of story lines and all the CBS, NFL Network and NFL world will be focused on Foxborough for the latest installment of the Border War. As you try to get through the work day and get ready for the primetime kickoff please day-drink responsibly as you take in this Thirsty Thursday-edition of the Jets at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Wet 'n' wild** - The forecast for Foxborough Thursday night includes heavy rain and potentially disruptive winds. That type of weather, assuming it affects the passing game, could be a great equalizer in this matchup. Were it not for the potential weather influence this would be a game that might call for Brady to spread the Jets out and throw the ball all over the field to take advantage of New York's lack of cornerbacks and poor secondary play. Brady remains arguably the best bad-weather quarterback in the history of football. So there is a good chance he handles the conditions, whatever they may be, much better than Jets struggling young passer Geno Smith. But if the Patriots are limited in what they can do in the air, that will put some pressure on an offensive line and backfield that may not be ready to carry the load. Losing Stevan Ridley takes away New England's only true power runner and lead back. Brandon Bolden could get the call. Jonas Gray might get a chance to show his power running, but he's a long shot to be able to carry the offense with consistency on the ground. The weather, combined with the Jets impressive front, will be a major challenge for the Patriots if the weather is indeed a major challenge to the passing game.
- Worried about Wilkerson** - The best player on the Jets, and maybe one of the best players overall in the NFL, is New York 3-4 defensive end Mohammad Wilkerson. He's sort of the Richard Seymour of Ryan's front. He is a beast in the ground game and he's leading the Jets with four sacks. Wilkerson is a moving mountain for any opposing offensive line to deal with, never mind a group that's been struggling at times this season and continues to lack week-to-week lineup continuity. Wilkerson can stuff the run, rush the passer, bat passes and do just about anything else you'd want a defensive lineman to do. He's a major challenge for the Patriots offensive line to deal with, regardless of who is on the field in front of Brady.
3. D middle - The loss of Jerod Mayo is a major blow to the middle of the Patriots defense. He's the captain, playcaller and leading tackler of the group. That can't be replaced with any one player. The questions in the middle are exacerbated a bit given that Dont'a Hightower missed the last two weeks with a knee injury and he's still listed as questionable for Thursday night. Hightower, Jamie Collins and even undrafted rookie Deontae Skinner will be expected to step up and fill the void of both leadership and production with Mayo gone. But Vince Wilfork and a somewhat thin defensive line should be expected to do a bit more as well. The Jets are going to try to run the ball, especially if it's in torrential rain. Chris Ivory is having a solid start to the season, leading New York with 67 carries and an impressive 4.9-yard average, boosted by a 71-yard touchdown. He's a powerful guy who can break tackles. The Jets have some talented offensive linemen, including a Pro Bowl center in Nick Mangold. The Jets will try to be physical with New England's front. They will test the front without Mayo. They might do it even more in the rain. Put it all together and the Patriots front seven will have its first chance to prove its Mayo-less mettle.
- Protect and serve** - Heading into every game this season one of the key storylines has been the offensive line. The group hasn't had the best start to the season and a part of that has been a lot of turnover in personnel in just six games. That will likely have to continue this week given the concussions suffered in the last week by captain Dan Connolly and rookie center Bryan Stork. Connolly has a history of concussions and it's hard to imagine that he'll be ready to go just four days after he was knocked out of the game in Buffalo, even though he's officially listed as questionable. Stork suffered his concussion in practice last Thursday and has not practiced since. He, too, is listed as questionable but could very well miss his second straight game. So Ryan Wendell will likely have to stay at center and two of three guys from the group of Josh Kline, Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey will have to man the two guard spots. Since Cannon has been working rotationally at both tackle spots, a Kline and Devey duo, as we saw late last week, might be in the cards. Regardless of the personnel, the group will have a lot to prove and will very much be in the spotlight Thursday night. Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and David Harris lead a pretty talented, physical, impressive Jets defensive front. They allow just 3.5 yards a carry as the NFL's No. 8 rush defense. They are third in the league in sacks per pass play, totaling 19 sacks on the season. They are good. The Patriots have not been good consistently up front this season. The battle of the trenches will be key. It's that simple, as it almost always is.
- Early challenge** - Thursday night football is a different animal. More often than not, that's led to home success. It's also led to some lopsided scores. In some games it has seemed that the inferior and eventual losing team has packed it in early after falling down a couple scores. The Jets are an emotional team. That can be an early boost. But that can only last so long, especially with players nursing sore bodies and a mixed-up work week. (Someone tell Smith there is a movie theatre just outside Gillette Stadium! Might make for an interesting night.) The Patriots haven't had the best starts to games this season. But things got rolling early in the last game at Gillette, the blowout of the Bengals. Putting Ryan's team in its place early would probably give the immature squad a reason to pack it in and head home early for a long week off. Fast starts, big leads and blowouts have been the norm on Thursday night football. It would behoove Belichick's team to be on the positive end of those three things. The longer the Jets hang around the more dangerous the game and likelihood for the upset. The Patriots first meeting of the season with New York has been a tight affair during the Ryan era, with New England scoring 14 or fewer points in three of those five games. The Patriots lost two of those games and won another two by just three points. The best way to stay out of a close dogfight in this one will be to get off to a fast start, regardless of the weather.
6. Turnover differential - The Patriots and Jets are at opposite ends of the league in terms of turnover differential this season, literally. New England is tied for first in the NFL with a plus-9 differential. New York is tied for 31st, dead last, with a minus-9. If the teams live up to their resume in terms of turnovers, New England should be all set. A week ago the Patriots were plus-3 in turnovers against a Bills team that came into that game tied with New England for the top differential in the league. Smith has no problem turning the ball over, as he's proven this season with seven interceptions and losing two of his five fumbles. His nine turnovers alone nearly double the Patriots five turnovers as a team. Smith's interceptions helped key New England's victory in the tough battle between the two teams early last season. The ball is going to be wet. (The Patriots even practiced with wet balls this week!) It will be tough on quarterbacks. Tough on receivers. Tough on ball carriers. The team that takes care of the football and takes it from the opponent should win. And that should be the Patriots.
As Belichick of points out, many division games are tight, physical battles. A rainstorm may increase the chances of that. In some ways, given the Patriots injuries and the variety of talent the Jets bring to the table, a physical game might favor the visitor. But Brady is and always has been good in the bad weather. Smith has been bad period. He's completing just 57-percent of his throws. He has seven picks to just six touchdowns. He has a Billy Madison-like 69.7 passer rating. If the Jets can run all night long, then they will have a chance. But I just don't see that happening, even against a Mayo-less front. If the Jets take care of the football, then they will have a chance. I don't expect them to be able to do that. My biggest concern is the physical Jets front against the Patriots still-very-suspect offensive line. I could see New York dominating up front, stunting the Patriots Ridley-less running game and frustrating Brady. Even in that scenario, though, I think the Patriots will be able to put up enough points to win. This probably won't be in the 30-plus point category we've seen from New England in recent weeks. But I expect the Patriots to extend their NFL-best home winning streak to 12 games. I expect Rob Gronkowski to get things done and open up some plays for Julian Edelman and the other receivers. I think Shane Vereen will get some situational runs and catches out of the backfield. In the end, I expect the Patriots to come out on top with a 24-16 victory in a physical, wet, maybe even ugly battle. Winning ain't always easy. But they all count the same in the standings.