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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Finale time to ground the Jets

New England closes out the regular season against the rival Jets at Gillette Stadium.


For the second straight week the Patriots (10-5) face off in Foxborough against a division foe led by a rookie quarterback who didn't suit up in the first meeting between the two teams earlier this season.

Last Sunday New England's defense hemmed in Buffalo's Josh Allen, forced turnovers and the Patriots ran the ball successfully on the way to the controlled win to clinch the AFC East title.

As boring as it may sound, even for a week-to-week, game plan specific team like the Patriots, a similar approach would make a lot of sense in this Sunday's regular season finale against Sam Darnold's Jets (4-11) at Gillette Stadium.

The Jets first-round quarterback has tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions in his debut season, but has played far more efficient football since returning from a three-game absence that included the Patriots 27-13 win in New York on Nov. 25. In the last three weeks Darnold has thrown just one interception compared to six touchdowns, topping 63-percent completions in each game while securing a passer rating of 100-plus over the last two contests.

While the rookie first-round passer has taken greater command of New York's offense, New England's own first-rounder, running back Sony Michel, has done the same of late with the Patriots ground game. The former Georgia star had his fourth 100-yard effort against Buffalo, his 116 yards a big chunk of the 273 yards New England churned out to beat the Bills.

Now, playing to secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the AFC playoff picture, Bill Belichick's team is treating the finale against the Jets as a playoff game. Win and the Patriots essentially advance to the second round of the playoffs, though the No. 2 seed could still be in play even with a loss depending on how the rest of the conference's action unfolds.

That said, New England is far from looking ahead to the postseason or past the Jets.

"I think playing well this week's been the focus, and anything beyond that, we haven't even talked about for good reason," Tom Brady said this week. "I would say it's tough to win a game and this is a tough one and we've got to focus on this one hundred percent, which we have, and just be prepared to go out and play our best. I think a good 60-minute game is still out there for us and that's what we're working to do and this would be a good time to do it."

As you count down the final hours to the season finale – as well as the final days of 2018 – here are some keys to this latest installment of New England's rivalry with New York.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 17 matchup against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, December 30, 2018.

Andy Hart Writer

Just do it – Nike's slogan is appropriate for the Patriots rushing attack right now – Just Do It. New England's best performances on offense this season have come with at least a balanced attack and sometimes with the running game carrying the bulk of the load. After last week's season-high 273 yards rushing, the Patriots ground attack (7th) ranks higher than the passing game (9th) for the season. Michel has shown the ability to be a workhorse and the offensive line has shown the ability to control the line of scrimmage. There is no reason not to continue to pound the rock against the Jets 26th-ranked run defense. At the very least the offense should be evenly split and maybe weighted more toward the run this week and moving forward.

Pocket watch – New England did a good job last week keeping Allen from getting outside, even forcing his scrambles up the middle. Darnold isn't the runner that Allen is, but the rookie has shown to be quite dangerous when extending plays and throwing on the move. The Patriots could again employ a controlled pass rush – last week that saw veteran Adrian Clayborn a healthy inactive – to keep Darnold in the pocket and force him to beat you with accurate reads and throws. Given the solid play the Patriots secondary has put forth of late, this is an intriguing matchup with the developing rookie passer.

Air it out – There is no question there has been some frustration with and within the Patriots passing attack at times this season. In the first game following Josh Gordon's suspension Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan combined for zero catches, the latter not even targeted by Brady against the Bills. That can't be the case moving forward. While Gronkowski faces a tough challenge in second-year Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams, Brady needs to find a way to spread the ball around and get more of his weapons involved in the production. The Jets have talent at all three levels on defense, but still have the No. 26 pass defense. New England is going to need to get more than short throws to Julian Edelman and dump-offs to the running backs moving forward. It would be kinda nice to get some other options going in the finale against New York.

Coming in third – Even while dominating on the ground last week, New England struggled in third down conversions. The Patriots have been inconsistent on the money down all year offensively and will be challenged by a Jets defense that's No. 2 in the league on third down. A healthy balance between the run and the pass, avoiding penalties and efficient execution are all key to success on third down. Beyond points and turnovers, third down is a key statistic in big games and the postseason. New England needs to be better on third down.

Come up big in the back end – The Patriots secondary has become more of a playmaking unit as the season has worn on. New England is third in the NFL with 18 interceptions spread among 10 different defenders. The unit had three takeaways last week with two interceptions and a Jason McCourty forced fumble. That's a trend that needs to continue in the back end. The group also needs to avoid giving up big plays, especially to Robby Anderson. The veteran has been clicking with Darnold over the last couple weeks, including a couple 100-yard efforts and a catch of 26 yards or longer in three straight weeks. The defensive backfield needs to keep New York from hitting big plays and find a way to continue to make some big plays of its own as part of a winning formula.

Prediction: A week ago New England controlled but didn't exactly dominate a game Bills team in the 24-12 victory. It's not hard to envision a similar game playing out against New York in the finale. The Jets have a better offense than the Bills, but not nearly as effective a defense. The Jets are 28th in points allowed and have given up 23-plus in six straight games. But they've also scored 22-plus in four straight after a midseason scoring lull. Darnold is playing better and taking care of the football. But the most notable issue is that the Patriots offense just isn't that potent these days and still finding itself after the Gordon suspension. It should continue to be able to run the ball, but that only tends to naturally keep scoring down a bit. The defense should be able to force another turnover or two. But New York will probably make some plays and score some points. Nothing comes easy these days in New England. Something in the range of a 30-17 win, though, might be in line. It will give the Patriots a two-game winning streak heading into January and lock up the No. 2 seed and bye. All things considered, that's a good way to hit the postseason.

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

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