One team taking the field Sunday afternoon in what will be a frigid Foxborough has plenty to play for as it closes out another successful year.
The Patriots (12-3) need a win over the rivals Jets (5-10) to lock down the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff picture, ensuring that the road to Super Bowl LII goes through Gillette Stadium.
New York, on the other hand, is a banged-up football team that’s 60 minutes of cold-weather, road action away from jetting into the offseason. It will spend the New Year’s Eve postgame hours resolving to be better in 2018.
Football players have plenty of pride and fight in them, but if ever there was a time a team might struggle to muster up that fight it would be a frigid road finale for a team like the Jets.
The cold affects everyone, but when you are playing for something and likely playing with a lead, it tends to warm the body just a bit.
And, as Rob Gronkowski put it, the Patriots are very much motivated to finish the regular season in a winning fashion after a week of practice work in cold conditions.
“We've got a big game ahead of us to have that number one spot which you want to play for,” Gronkowski said. “It's huge. It's motivating. You don't play sports to not be number one. It's crucial. It's a big stock to get home field advantage and that's why we've got to put all our attention versus the Jets so we can go out there, we can compete, we can play and do our best to get the win.”
As the Patriots attempt to secure their 13th win of the season and the No. 1 playoff seed with a win over the Jets, here are some potential keys to the latest chilly installment in this heated rivalry.
Players to Watch: Jets vs. Patriots
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 17 matchup with the New York Jets.
*Harrison’s debut – *The day new Patriots linebacker James Harrison took part in his first New England practice he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was expecting to play in the season finale against New York. That makes sense, even with less than a week to learn his new role in a new system. New England needs help on the edge of the defense and needs to find out if Harrison – the former Defensive Player of the Year who played a mere 40 snaps over five games for the Steelers this season – has anything left in the tank to offer the defending Super Bowl champs. Expect to see plenty of Harrison against the Jets, trying to set the edge against the Bilal Powell-led rushing attack. New England has had one of the worst run defenses in football this season. Harrison won’t fix that by himself, but he could help a little. Sunday afternoon he’ll get his chance to show what he can still do at 39 and to compete, which is all he really wanted all along. In doing so, he may earn himself a role on the defense when the real season starts for the Patriots on Divisional Playoff weekend.
No biggies – The Patriots allowed four passes longer than 30 yards in last week’s win over Buffalo. Two weeks ago there was the 69-yard catch-and-run allowed in Pittsburgh that nearly ruined the Patriots comeback win. Allowing big plays was a big problem early in the season that the secondary seemed to have cleaned up over the course of the year. But the issue is rearing its ugly head again as the playoffs approach. Big plays are probably the only way that the Jets will have a legitimate chance to pull off the upset on Sunday. Receiver Robby Anderson leads the Jets with a 15.1-yard average on his team-high 62 catches. He’d be the guy most likely to hit a big one. And moving forward big plays would be a major concern in the playoffs. Cleaning up the big plays allowed should be a priority for Devin McCourty and the rest of the back end.
Pick it up, not off – Tom Brady has thrown an interception in five straight games, the first time he’s done that since 2002. He’s never thrown a pick in six straight. Brady admitted that turnovers will be key against New York and that he needs to do a better job with his decisions and throws to avoid picks moving forward. Good news is that the Jets are in the bottom third of the league with just 11 interceptions. Still, the cold weather and wind could be a factor in the passing game for a Patriots attack that hasn’t exactly been flying high of late. New York has some young playmakers at cornerback and safety. And it will be interesting to see how a former dome receiver like Brandin Cooks deals with the bone-chilling conditions. The passing game, and the potential interceptions, will be a critical area to keep an eye on this Sunday afternoon.
*Find a balance – *The Patriots have run the ball pretty well down the stretch, including 190-plus yards on the ground in three of the last five games. So it shouldn’t take too much to muster up a balanced offense in the cold on Sunday. One issue, though, is the fact that Rex Burkhead (knee) and Mike Gillislee (knee) are already out. James White (ankle) is questionable after sitting out last week. The only issue with trying to run the ball against a mediocre Jets defense is that it might mean having Dion Lewis take on a sizeable number of touches once again, only seven days after his career-high 24 attempts. Maybe Brandon Bolden will get some carries, especially if the Patriots can build an early lead. One reporter even wondered if James Develin could carry a larger load if called on, which is probably overly optimistic. Lewis has always had confidence in his ability to be a workhorse dating back to his success in the role at Pitt. His 154 carries this season are more than he had in his previous five years in the NFL combined. Getting him to the postseason at full strength would be nice. Still, Lewis might have to tote the rock regularly against the Jets, at least early on.
Prediction: *The overwhelming keys to this game are the fact that the Patriots are the far better more talented team, New England has much more to play for and, of course, how the cold will affect the play for both teams. All those factors, including Brady as arguably the best bad-weather quarterback in history, seem to very much favor the home Patriots who are 42-10 all-time in games played at 34 degree or below. New England is a huge favorite for a reason. All it may take to give the cold, soon-to-be-in-the-offseason Jets a reason to pack it in is a fast start and early lead for New England. That would also be a nice way to give Bill Belichick the option of managing his personnel over the second half of the game. The Patriots should be able to run the ball on the Jets middle-of-the-road front, especially with the offensive line coming off maybe its best game of the season. Brady will likely be extra careful with the ball but should also find room to get it to Gronkowski and the rest of his weapons. New England escaped with a one-touchdown win in New York earlier this season, but this should be a bit easier going. Something in the range of a 31-13 victory* would be a nice way to close out the season and the year for the Patriots and their fans.
What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!