The way Bill Belichick and Tom Brady talk about it, this is the first week of the real NFL season.
Though New England exits its bye week with a 7-3 record, atop the AFC East and very much in the mix for high seeding in the conference playoff picture, the theory in Foxborough has always been that real football starts after Thanksgiving.
The Patriots kick off the key part of the schedule and final six weeks of the season with a trip to MetLife Stadium to take on the rival Jets (3-7), who also are coming off a bye week.
Though Brady and the Patriots have dominated the Jets just like the other teams in the division, the quarterback notching a 25-6 mark against New York over the years, it hasn't always been easy. New England has won four straight in the series, though two were one-score games. New York's last victory came in overtime in 2015. Five straight road games against the Jets have been one-score games, including two overtime losses.
"Back in the division this week. It's always tough down there with the Jets, and I'm sure it will be again this time," Belichick said. "The last five times we've gone down there, they'll all been hard-fought games, close games."
New York has struggled offensively this season under the leadership of first-round pick Sam Darnold, ranking 29th in terms of yards and 23rd in points. But the Jets put up a fight with a solid, athletic defense that's 18th in terms of yards and is No. 2 in third-down D.
New York may have just three wins and may have been dominated by the similarly-lowly Bills in a 41-10 loss before the bye, but Belichick expects the Jets best.
"We'll get it. I'm sure we'll get it. Yes," Belichick said.
The real question is whether he can expect his team's best coming off the break as well as arguably its worst game in the 34-10 loss in Tennessee.
New England's season has included very good home wins and very bad road losses. Even the road wins haven't exactly been easy. So, returning to action on the road against anyone, especially the rival Jets, is a notable spot for the Patriots.
And it's the first game of a stretch when the rubber meets the road on the NFL calendar as contenders and pretenders begin to go their separate ways. Which describes the Patriots? Sunday may be a first step toward finding out.
As you sleep off the turkey and count down the long-weekend hours to the Patriots return to action, here are some keys to this battle with Gang Green.
Healthy outlook – Even though Brady landed on the injury report his week as limited due to a knee issue suffered on reception in the pre-bye loss in Tennessee, the Patriots begin the stretch run with seemingly improving health. Rob Gronkowski is reportedly set to return. Sony Michel should be feeling better. Shaq Mason could be in line to be back and right guard. Those are three key cogs to the New England offense who have missed time and been slowed to injury. It's not too often that NFL teams get healthier as the season unfolds, but that may just be the case for the Patriots heading toward December assuming whatever Brady is dealing with is minor in nature.
Gronk not Gronkowski – The Patriots have had Gronkowski on the field for seven games this season. He's put up numbers – 29 catches for 448 yards (15.4 avg.) and a touchdown – that many players would be happy with. But, Gronkowski has not been the fun-loving, dominating, game-changing playmaker that fans and teammates are accustomed to. Aside from a few plays against the Texans and Chiefs, Gronkowski has been pretty forgettable. That needs to change down the stretch and maybe even in New York if the Patriots offense is going to get back to its high-scoring ways. New England needs the mythical monster that is Gronk to unleash itself this week.
Ground the Jets – New York clearly wants and probably needs to run the football to win. Leading rusher Isaiah Crowell has two 100-yard games this season, coming in wins over the Lions and Broncos. He had 200-plus in a huge day to defeat Denver. The Jets passing attack has been pretty putrid with rookie Sam Darnold and probably doesn't have too much more potential with Josh McCown. Regardless the Jets will try to balance out the offense and get Crowell going early against a New England run defense that's been up-and-down this season. Last we saw the Patriots defensive front it was allowing Derrick Henry to run right through it in Tennessee. Lawrence Guy and the rest of the run defense need to be better than that in New York this weekend.
Balance it out – The Patriots offense has also been at its best this season when it's able to get the Michel-led ground game going. New England hit its stride when Michel had 300-plus yards Week 4-6, scoring 38-plus points in each win. Michel returned to action in Tennessee after missing time to a knee issue and should be closer to full health this weekend against the Jets 21st-ranked run defense that allows 4.2 yards per carry. The Jets have some impressive young talent on the defensive front, but Josh McDaniels should still look to get Michel and the ground attack going early on in New York.
Right out of the gates – The Patriots have struggled on the road this season. Those games have included early deficits, playing the game on the opponents' terms and, three times, a game that got away from Belichick's team. Though New England always looks to start fast, there is probably even more of a premium on it on the road coming out of the bye against the Jets. It's easy to imagine the road problems and bad starts away from Foxborough being a major focal point of internal critique during the bye. Expect aggressive, energetic early play Sunday afternoon at MetLife, maybe even some no-huddle/up-tempo work from the Brady-led attack.
Third down – While New England's overall numbers on third down have been middle-of-the-pack this season, they have been below 36 percent the last three games and bottomed out at 20 percent in Tennessee. New York has the NFL's No. 2 defense in terms of third down stops. The Jets will throw pressures and coverage at Brady and Co. on the money down and the New England offense needs to find a way to stay on the field it is to avoid a division battle that turns into a grind-it-out dogfight. On the flipside, New England's mediocre third down defense should be capable of getting off the field with regularity against the NFL's worst third down offense from New York. Winning third down on both sides of the ball would be a nice first step toward controlling this one on the road.
Prediction: There is no doubt the Jets have some good, young talent on defense. But similar to another Patriots division rival, the Bills, New York just doesn't pose much of a threat on offense. Heading into the bye the Patriots just didn't play well enough consistently enough on the road. There were too many missed opportunities, negative plays and execution issues outside of Gillette. One would think that the combination of pre-bye issues, a week to refresh and a road battle against the hated Jets might be the recipe for New England to play with a lot of emotion and focus. Combine that with improving health (again, assuming Brady is good to go), including the likely returning offensive focal point Gronkowski, and there is reason for high hopes this holiday weekend in New York. Shut down Crowell, avoid big plays, get off the field and balance out the offense and there is no reason to think New England can't finally truly control a road win. Brady and Co. are due for such a performance and it comes against the rudderless Jets to the tune of a 31-13 victory that quiets some of the questions from the Tennessee loss and kick starts the stretch run.
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