It's rivalry week in Foxborough as the Patriots prepare to host the Jets on Sunday afternoon at 4:15 at what should be a rocking Gillette Stadium. The two teams were expected to fight not only for the AFC East division title, but also for potential postseason positioning. But the Bills have injected themselves in the early season divisional race, sitting tied with New England at 3-1 atop the standings. And the Jets enter this big early season battle at 2-2, after a two-game losing streak. New York's third-straight road game brings them up I-95 for the latest installment in the Border War. There hasn't been too much bulletin-board material coming out of either organization, save for a couple minor mumblings from New York. As such the focus is on the game itself, its matchups and what right now look like two somewhat flawed football teams. Until those teams butt helmets in what should be yet another emotional, physical meeting, sit back and enjoy this Jets edition Friday Six-Pack!
1. Matchup matchup? – Football is a game all about matchups. Offense vs. defense. This player vs. that player. Strength vs. weakness. This week the biggest matchup story revolves around Patriots wideout Wes Welker and whether or not Rex Ryan will decide to employ his all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis in trying to shut down the game's most productive receiver through the first month. New York didn't use Revis to shut down Welker and the Patriots last January, but that was then and this is now. Welker is now playing like a true No. 1 receiver, with the 15.4 yards-per-catch average to prove it. The Jets usually send Revis at the opponent's No. 1 receiver. Seems simple to me. And while many have said that Revis is better suited for his battles on the outside with more traditional No. 1 receivers, New England apparently produced a film cut-up this week of Revis guarding the slot receiver more than 600 times over the last year. I think Ryan would be crazy not to use Revis on Welker. No. 83 has caught more than 50 percent of Tom Brady's passes in recent weeks, while Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco have been afterthoughts. If Aaron Hernandez returns, it will help diversify the Patriots passing attack. But I'd still worry first and most about Welker. I believe in fight strength with strength. If the Jets don't do that I think they'll regret it.
2. In the running? – Ryan has talked about bringing the "Ground and Pound" back to New York. His team has not run the ball well through four weeks working behind a banged up offensive line. The Jets average just 3.1 yards a carry as a team thanks to 3.1 per for Shonn Greene and 3.0 per for LaDainian Tomlinson. The Patriots have been OK in stopping the run, using a base front to slow down Darren McFadden last week. Will Ryan just disregard New England's terrible pass defense and try to establish the run early? I doubt it. Nick Mangold will return at center for New York, which will help in both run blocking and pass protection. Albert Haynesworth has a good chance to return after a two-game absence on the Patriots defensive line rotation. The Jets may run some, but I don't expect them to disregard the obvious in this one. On the other side, the Patriots are coming off their best week running the ball. The offensive line likes to run block. And Stevan Ridley (8.2 avg. on 18 carries) looks like he's comfortable carrying the rock and giving the attack a boost that BenJarvus Green-Ellis simply can't provide. Balancing out the offense just a bit with continued efforts to keep the ground game's momentum going can only help the passing game, especially the play-action. The running game won't likely decide the game for either team in this one, but I keep saying that every time I see Ridely he leaves me wanting to see more. That's more than what the Jets can say about their running backs right now.
3. Under pressure! – The Jets sack leader is Bart Scott with two. The Patriots leader is Mark Anderson with two. Neither team has done a great job getting to the quarterback with regularity. But given the advantage the Jets have over the Patriots at this point in terms of coverage players in the back end, it's more important for the New England pass rush to show some improvement and some life in this game. Assuming the Patriots handle the running game from New York, the Jets will have to throw the ball and that means the home team pass rush will very much be in the spotlight. Andre Carter has said the rush is close. Defensive line coach Pepper Johnson says he's "a little more than satisfied" with the pass rush. But the proof is in the pudding and the pass rushing pudding hasn't tasted too good early in the year. Never has there been a better time than for Carter and the rest to make their mark. Sanchez isn't the coolest of characters right now. Make him uncomfortable and maybe, just maybe, the Patriots can hold their first opposing passer to under 300 yards passing. Maybe. I'm not worried about the Patriots dealing with the Jets pass rush. New England has been tremendous protecting Brady so far. The team ranks second in the New York Life Protection Index, barely trailing the Bills, and deservedly so. Just wish I felt the same about the pass rush. New York ranks 23rd in the Index. Maybe the Patriots will take advantage of this opportunity.
4. Pressure cooker – Can Week 5 bring a must-win game? No. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot riding on this game – both in terms of actual standing in the division as well as mental stability within the two teams. The Jets probably feel that they can't possibly lose three games in a row as a team whose head coach guaranteed a Super Bowl win. They can't fall further behind in the division. They can't keep losing and thus causing more internal fighting and strife. But the Patriots have some pressure on them in this one as well. The Jets have won two of the last three meetings, including last year's playoff game. New York comes in seemingly wounded and weary. Even if you hope to split in the series, you have to hold serve at home. So this is clearly not a game you feel comfortable losing on any level. And given the huge spread Vegas has put up, New England is very much expected to win. The weight of expectation can be pressure. The fear of losing can be pressure. Which team will rise to that pressure and which team will be cooked by it?
5. Sanchez domingo – As I've felt with most games so far this season, this one comes down to the opposing quarterback. Can he make the key plays to win the game? Will the Patriots pass defense make the plays it needs to – especially in the red zone – to swing the game? Jason Campbell made the key mistake last weekend in Oakland with his interception to Patrick Chung in the end zone. The game got out of hand for the Raiders from there. Sunday evening Sanchez will be in the Patriots cross hairs. I don't see any way that the Jets can win this game without their Sanchise quarterback throwing the ball with a lot of success and reaching 300 yards or so through the air. Brady will find his yards through the air, even against a Jets pass defense that sports the best defensive passer rating (57.1) in the league at this point. Time for Sanchez to prove he can hang with the big boys in the regular season if the Jets have hopes of pulling off the road upset.
6. Spreading the offense – Hernandez (knee) returned to limited practice action this week. Getting him back on the field would go a long way toward balancing out the passing attack. If Welker is matched up with Revis, there is a good chance he won't have the type of day he's recorded in the first four weeks. Rob Gronkowski has to spend at least some of his time as a blocker. Deion Branch has just one catch in the last two weeks. Chad Ochocinco continues to ease into the mix. Taylor Price was finally active in Oakland. Next step will actually be getting into the game. Someone from this group needs to help carry the load through the air. That's especially true with Danny Woodhead (ankle) banged up, too. If Hernandez is active, he's the obvious choice. If not, then it falls on one of the three underutilized receivers. I'm still holding out hope that Price will carve out a role for himself, because based on his speed, skills and talents I think he can help this offense out. But sooner or later he has to prove it. No time like the present!
This game doesn't have the hype it might normally carry because neither team is as good as we all expected. But that doesn't mean we won't see a big-time fight on Sunday. I expect both teams to be fired up and physical. But, as always, it will come down to making plays. I expect Brady to spread the ball more, getting away from just throwing to Welker. I also think the ground game will build on the success it had in Oakland. It may not be 180 yards or 30 attempts, but it will complement the passing game. Defensively I'm going to say the Patriots force the Jets into a few mistakes in the passing game. Carter will provide some pressure and maybe Devin McCourty finally gets his hands on an interception to build his confidence and that of the entire unit. Sanchez just isn't playing well enough right now (five interceptions and four lost fumbles) to go head to head with Brady. His mistakes will be the difference. I think the Patriots send Ryan home very unhappy as New England gets the 27-17 victory. It may not be pretty, but the winning continues.