Bill Belichick's Patriots (12-2) have given themselves a great gift this holiday season.
New England's five-game winning streak – including consecutive ultra-impressive wins over the Ravens and in Denver – has the team poised to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC to kick off what is looking like another potential Super Bowl run.
But all the work that's gone into establishing the Patriots as a the team to beat – not just in the AFC but maybe in the entire league – could come crashing down if New England doesn't take care of its business over the final two weeks against division foes.
That starts on Saturday afternoon with the Christmas Eve, Gang Green-wrapped gift that is the low-flying Jets (4-10) coming to Gillette Stadium.
A year ago, late-season losses in New York and Miami (where New England will once again finish the season next weekend) meant last January's AFC title game was in Denver, where the Patriots championship hopes were beat out of them by the Broncos defense. It's a storyline that no one want so see play out again this winter like a too-soon Spider-man movie reboot.
On paper, avoiding that should be simple. Todd Bowles Jets aren't just a team with few wins on its resume, but with veteran players whose desire and focus have very much been called into question. Young quarterback Bryce Petty is tasked with trying to pull the upset – New York is a three-score underdog – while Darrelle Revis and other veterans seem somewhat disinterested in anything other than getting the dismal season over with.
PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 16 game against the New York Jets.
Still, it's a division game and the latest installment of the Border War, even if the rivalry is a bit lackluster right now given the Jets directionless flight which had led to a lack of fight.
History tells us that seven straight games between these teams have been decided by seven points or fewer, including a pair of overtime losses for New England. That the Patriots high-powered offense has been held to 22 points or fewer in four of those battles and haven't scored more than 30 points since 2012.
But recent history – meaning this season – tells us the Patriots are the far better football team, rolling toward checking off its next goal by locking down homefield advantage in the playoffs. That the Jets are disinterested as a team, resulting in performances that have the team near the bottom of the league in points (30th), points allowed (t-26th) and point differential (29th) heading into a contest with a Patriots squad that's No. 1 in the league in point differential.
The Patriots should win to head into Christmas on continued roll. The Jets are a present at this point, one that should give New England another victory for another step toward the ultimate goal.
Here are a few potential keys to keep an eye on as the Patriots attempt to present themselves and their fans with a nice early Christmas gift.
That's the Bilal game – One of the things the joyless Jets do relatively well is run the football. While veteran lead back Matt Forte is dealing with knee and shoulder injuries that make him a game-time decision, it's actually Bilal Powell who has been carrying the ground attack in recent weeks. The determined runner has tallied a combined 200-plus yards against the 49ers and Dolphins. Powell is averaging 5.7 yards per carry on the season and has always been a tough guy to get to the ground. With Petty dealing with his chest injury and the New York passing game struggling all year, the Jets will likely try to get the running game going early in this trip to New England. But the Patriots run defense continues to impress, having risen to the No. 4-ranked unit in the league. Alan Branch has been an early-down force and good for at least one tone-setting tackle for a loss seemingly each week. Dont'a Hightower missed practice this week but is reportedly expected to play. Matt Patricia will ask this group to continue to dominate on the ground to force the Jets into trying to make plays in the air.
Big pass D – If and when Petty goes to the air to try to make plays, New England will be focused on avoiding chunk gains. Powell is a big part of the passing game underneath and the Patriots will have no problem with the back catching balls and tackling him for short gains. But, Devin McCourty and Co. will focus on the likes of Brandon Marshall, Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson down the field. In the first meeting between the teams this season Enunwa had a 100-yard day, including 22-yard touchdown that's the only passing score longer than 20 yards allowed this season by the New England secondary. Petty has not been able to find consistent success. He's completing less than 58 percent of his passes and has a rating of just 64.6. It would seem unlikely that he and the Jets passing attack are going to put together long scoring drives. So New England will need to continue what has been a strength all season in terms of getting back in the back end, tackling well and avoiding big plays allowed in the passing game.
Wrap your gift – Tom Brady is the gift that keeps on giving for Patriots Nation. He earned his 12th Pro Bowl trip this week and could be in line for another MVP despite missing four games to suspension. Brady popped up on the injury report again this week due to a thigh issue that dates back to the Seattle game on Nov. 13. This comes after early-game struggles in Denver as Brady looked a bit uncomfortable. The Jets have a big, physical, versatile defensive front. The Jets are worst in the league in sacks per pass play, but keeping those big guys off of Brady can't be taken for granted. This late in the season and with TB12 already dealing with a leg issue it's imperative that David Andrews and the rest of the line wrap up their quarterback in protection to allow him to feel comfortable and stay healthy. New England's offensive line is coming off a really impressive performance in Denver and it would be nice to see that continue against a less dangerous Jets front. Keep Brady clean and healthy.
Takeaway the Jets will to win – The Jets have the worst turnover differential in the NFL this season, at minus-19 for the year. That includes a league-worst 22 interceptions thrown and a total of 30 giveways that's second to only the Chargers. The Gang Green defense has just 11 takeaways and a mere seven interceptions. Turnovers are usually one of the only ways that huge upsets happen. The good news is that not only are the Jets bad in terms of turnovers, but the Patriots have been impressive and improving of late in that area. New England's 11 giveaways are tied for the second-fewest in the NFL. And after a three-game midseason drought, the Patriots have had at least one takeaway in four straight games with a total of eight in that span. If both teams continue their turnover trends, it only strengthens New England's chances of the game ending the way it should.
Prediction – Maybe this a biased opinion – although Vegas seems to agree – but there is no real reason to pick the Jets to beat the Patriots on Saturday afternoon. New England is better in pretty much every category, position and way. There can be no letdown from Belichick's team, though, and no room for holiday distraction. It's still the NFL and, as they say I guess, anything can happen. The best thing that could happen is for Brady to lead the team right down the field – probably through the air and maybe attacking former teammate Darrelle Revis – to get an early advantage. Playing on the road on Christmas to play out a horrific season it would be easy to envision New York giving up in the face of a first-quarter deficit. The Patriots should be able to balance out the offense as they have done all season. Pass first, run second on offense. Stop the run first, avoid the big passing play second on defense. Four goals to victory. All very attainable. New England should control the game from coin toss to final gun, 27-13. Another win. Another step on the road to Houston and LI.
What do you think of our keys? Let us know with a comment below!