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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: A Jets state of mind

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The Patriots were supposed to be not only the cream of the crop in the AFC East in 2017, but in the entire NFL.

The Jets were supposed to be not only the worst team in the AFC East in 2017, but in the entire NFL.

Yet, here we are, heading into Sunday afternoon's mid-October battle at MetLife Stadium with the two bitter rivals tied atop the AFC East with identical 3-2 records. And it's New York that enters the game as the "hotter" team, riding a three-game winning streak.

So, apparently the Jets aren't tanking the season in an all-out-effort to get the No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft with an eye on the franchise QB the team so desperately needs.

And apparently the defending-champion Patriots aren't going to cruise right through the regular season as the most complete, dominant team in football.

But what does that mean for the here-and-now of this game with first place in the division on the line? Are these two squads really as close as their identical records would indicate?

Short answer? No. But the only thing that matters is how they play in this game. And recent history tells us it could be a fight to the finish. New England has seen three straight games this year go down to the wire, winning two of those. And prior to last season's Christmas Eve 41-3 blowout win in Foxborough, the previous seven meetings had been decided by seven points or less, including a pair of overtime wins for the Jets.

So throw out the preseason expectations when these two bitter rivals hit the turf Sunday afternoon at MetLife. The Patriots and Jets have a history of fighting to the finish. At this point the Patriots are fighting to prove themselves a championship contender, while the Jets are fighting to prove that they are playing for this season and not to lay the draft pick foundation for some future successes.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 6 game against the New York Jets.

Before kickoff of the latest installment of the Border War, here are a few potential keys to this surprisingly important early season AFC East matchup.

Protect Tom -When Tom Brady misses practice, Patriots fans notice. Brady was absent from the practice field on Tuesday, reportedly getting an MRI on his injured left shoulder, and then was listed as "did not practice" on Wednesday. He downplayed the injury in his weekly press conference, but it's clear that the early-season pounding that Brady has been taking has taken its toll. He's already been sacked more times this year (16) than he was in the 12 games he played last year (15). He's on pace for a career-high 51 sacks. The Jets don't have a ton of elite pass rushers and have notched just seven sacks in five games. But the Patriots offensive line has struggled to open the year and has allowed opponents more success than they should in terms of getting after Brady. That trend can't continue against Leonard Williams and Co. Nate Solder and his four entrenched trenchmates simply need to start getting the job done.

Gronk's time - It's probably not a coincidence that Rob Gronkowski missed his first game of the season with a thigh injury in Tampa and the Patriots were held to a season-low 19 points last Thursday night. Gronkowski is a huge key to the passing game and playmaking for New England. He deemed himself "ready to roll" this week and was removed from the injury report. He also sounded intrigued to go up against a Jets defense that fields two rookies at the safety position in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, the only two rookie starters for New York. Gronkowski was cruising before the thigh injury and needs to get rolling again for the Patriots offense to be at its best. He should have that chance in New York on Sunday.

No biggies - The Patriots have allowed way too many big plays on defense this season. That was true even in the supposed bounce-back effort for the unit in the win in Tampa Bay. New England has allowed 21 pass plays longer than 20 yards and 10 runs longer than 10 yards. That needs to be cleaned up. New York doesn't have the most potent, consistent offense. But they have hit their share of big plays including long TD runs (75, 69) and have had nine different guys notch a reception longer than 20 yards this fall. Aged journeyman Josh McCown has completed 71 percent of his passes, but the veteran shouldn't exactly be able to march up and down the field without the help of a strong running game and big plays. It's time for the Patriots to clean up the big-play issues on defense. If not now, then when?

Cancel 300 sequel - The only quarterback to fail to throw for 300 yards in a Patriots game this season was Brady in the opener against the Chiefs. Each of the first five opponents has surpassed the passing plateau. McCown, though, hasn't even topped 250 yards passing in a game this season. After the supposed step forward against the Bucs, the pass defense could take another leap in the right direction by holding a pedestrian passer in check. If McCown gets over 300 yards the questions about the pass defense will grow louder once again.

Get explosive runs - Mike Gillislee hit big runs with regularity a year ago on his way to leading the NFL with a 5.7-yard average as the Bills backup. So far, the restricted free agent addition has just one run longer than 15 yards and just three attempts longer than 10 yards to open his Patriots career. But Gillislee has run better of late and Bill Belichick said this week that he expects the explosive plays to come soon, maybe even this weekend. Running the ball, including a few chunk runs, would be a good way to balance out the offense, keep Brady from getting hit too often and keep the defense on the sidelines. It's a win for all involved. Now Gillislee and the offensive line just need to get it done against a run defense for the Jets that allowing 4.6 yards a carry and near the bottom of the league rankings early this season.

Run D -The Jets need to have some balance to succeed on offense, even though both Matt Forte and Bilal Powell are dealing with injuries. Forte should return to action but Powell is questionable and could be a game-time-decision. Rookie Elijah McGuire is also an option. Whoever gets the rock, New England has to be more stout than it's been. Doug Martin returned from suspension to gash the front last Thursday, when Alan Branch was a healthy scratch who didn't even make the trip to Tampa. Whether Branch gets back into the mix or not, New England's 24th-ranked run defense that's allowed opponents to hit for 5 yards per a carry on the season must find a way to be more consistent up front. If the Jets can run the ball efficiently it puts a lot more pressure on the pass defense and makes McCown's life easier. The pass defense manned up a bit last Thursday, now it's the front's turn.

Prediction: Sooner or later the Jets have to play like we expected and the Patriots have to do the same, right? New York hasn't exactly dispatched the NFL's elite with consecutive wins over the Dolphins, Jags and Browns. Despite history telling us that games in New York can bog down and be battles down to the wire, New England is due for a feel-good effort. Coming off an extended rest from last Thursday night, Belichick's players and coaches have had plenty of time to prepare for a familiar, hated foe. That should pay off. Brady should get things going early through the air with Gronkowski doing damage in the middle of the field and the depth of weapons putting immense stress on the young safeties who may just be taught a youthful lesson in this one. Set the tone early through the air and then balance it out with the run later. And if the defense can not only avoid allowing big plays but also chip in with a couple big plays of its own there is the chance for this one to be more lopsided than any other New England has played this season. Sooner or later Brady and Co. are due to cruise, right? Sooner is Sunday with a35-13 win over Gang Green to build a little momentum in the Patriots early-season turnaround story.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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