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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Patriots expect tight battle with Jets

The Patriots (8-2) are once again battling for the top seed in the AFC playoff picture on the way toward another possible Super Bowl season.

The Jets (3-7) are once again searching for answers in the midst of another disappointing season looking up the standings in the AFC East with plenty of long term questions in the daily pages of the New York tabloids.

Bill Belichick's team will once again be playing for a title come January. Todd Bowels team will once again be preparing for the draft.

Certainly the focal point of that success/failure for the two rivals is the quarterback position. Tom Brady's 17th season as the stable foundation of the franchise on the field may actually be his best. Even his suspension was overcome when Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett led New England to three wins in four chances.

New York, has no stability at the position. Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick was final re-signed late in the offseason after much drama. Coming off a great 2015 campaign, the journeyman has returned to reality with 13 interceptions and a 67.6 rating that had him benched. He's back in the lineup, but hard to say for certain which team that benefits more on Sunday.

So, despite all the perceived problems and questions in Foxborough about the New England defense, the Patriots are once again better off than the Jets in so many ways.

But, the divide in success over the years hasn't kept the annual AFC East meetings from being true battles. Each of the last six meetings in the series has been decided by seven points or less, including a pair of Patriots losses in overtime. The last three trips to New York have included those two overtime losses and a one-point New England win.

Though the fortunes and foundations of the two franchises are about as far apart as possible, they've fought it out to the wire on the field. Belichick has already said he is expecting yet another down-to-the-wire division battle.

As the late Sunday afternoon kickoff at MetLife Stadium approaches, here are a few of the key factors to key an eye on as the Border War gets it on once again down I-95.

PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 12 game against the New York Jets.

Time to turn it over - There has been much written and said about the alarming lack of turnovers coming from the New England defense. It's been a focal point for weeks, yet the Patriots still have just nine takeaways and have gone three straight games without one, the first time that's happened since 2005. The team has never gone four straight weeks without a takeaway. Fortunately, the Jets have the third-most giveaways in the NFL with 20. That includes Fitzpatrick's 13 interceptions. The veteran has also fumbled seven times, although he's yet to lose one. Still, the supposed gun-slinging quarterback and his offense will give the Patriots chances to take the ball away…or at least accept a gift. The unit couldn't even do that last Sunday in San Francisco. New England is on pace for by far the fewest takeaways of the Belichick era. The Patriots are due. Maybe the rival Jets and their turnover-prone quarterback are the solution to the turnover slump. If not now, then when?

Matt-ch up - Veteran running back Matt Forte is having a solid but far from spectacular first season in New York. He leads the Jets with 189 rushes for 732 yards (3.9 avg.) and seven rushing touchdowns. Bilal Powell has chipped in with 40 attempts for 272 yards (6.8 avg.) and a score to fill out the NFL's No. 11 rushing attack. Forte has topped 20 carries and 90 yards in three of the last four games. Conversely, the Patriots run defense has been trending in the wrong direction. That could be exacerbated by the reported suspension of defensive tackle Alan Branch, who's been very good up front this season. New England needs to be far more stout up front, including better edge-setting and tackling. Dont'a Hightower leads the unit and must continue to be a force. Clearly the Jets will try to get Forte going and balance out the offense at home to control the game. New England's suddenly-suspect run defense can't allow that to happen.

Health check - New England's practice report included plenty of elite players dealing with injury this week. Brady led that list missing two days to a knee injury. Martellus Bennett missed a day to his ongoing ankle issue. Rob Gronkowski practiced all week on a limited basis, but ESPN already reported he would miss his second game in a row to a chest injury. Brady should play - he always does. But if both Bennett and Gronkowski were out, maybe Chris Hogan (back) too, it would greatly change the Patriots offense. New England has been pretty fortunate in terms of injuries this season, but keeping an eye on the big names on the injury report/inactives will be very important in New York.

Offensive approach - The Patriots have been pretty balanced on offense this year. LeGarrette Blount has topped 20 carries five times and had 18-plus on three other occasions. But a week after facing an historically bad 49ers run defense New England heads into a battle with a formidable Jets. Three elite defensive linemen in Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson along with linebacker David Harris are the backbone of New York's stout run defense that ranks No. 4 in the NFL at this point. It's unlikely Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be looking to run for the sake of running. More likely, assuming the personnel allows, this is a game to potentially spread the Jets out and run out of those sets with Dion Lewis. The passing back looked good in his first action last week and his work out of one-back sets last season was tremendous. The spread looks would also put pressure on a banged up, thin back end for New York. New England attacks defenses in different ways each week and this could be a good ol' spread 'em and shred 'em game.

Prediction - Turnovers should be the difference in this one. If New England gets sloppy on offense, it will boost the home team. If the Patriots can get out of their takeaway slump against a team with the second-worst turnover differential (minus-11) in the game it would be a boost for the road squad that needs that boost. But the fact that the Patriots have played it so tight with the Jets in the last three years is a concern. New England had just a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter last Sunday in an admittedly rainy San Francisco against an inept 49ers team. The Patriots aren't exactly clicking and rolling right now. These division battles often lend themselves to bogging down. Still, Brady is too good and the Jets pass defense simply is not. New York will try to disrupt things with the blitz, but Brady has proven he can overcome those issues that affect only mortal QBs. Assuming Brady is good to go and has enough of his weapons, he should continue to make things happen through the air. Defensively New England must stop the run and get off the field, something it did better last week against the hapless 49ers. Lewis could be a key playmaker once again as both a runner and receiver against the oversized Jets front. In the end New England is just the better team. New York has won two of its last four but has lost two in a row including 9-6 to the Rams. The Patriots are good enough to control a 31-20 victory in this rivalry battle, another positive step in what has suddenly seemed like a somewhat turmoil-filled season in New England. Win and move on.

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