It's rivalry week in Foxborough. A week after the Patriots (5-0) took care of business against the Colts in Indy, New England returns to Gillette Stadium Sunday afternoon to take on the team's true rival - the hated Jets (4-1).
Bringing even more hype and interest to the contest is the fact that Todd Bowles has his upstart New York squad quietly going about its business to the point where this latest trip to New England is a battle for first place in the AFC East.
The first-year Jets boss has brought a more even-keeled style to the team, even while maintaining an aggressive, dominant defense. That defense is led by turncoat Darrelle Revis, the mercenary returning to the Big Apple after helping the Patriot to their latest Super Bowl success last fall.
Tom Brady acknowledged the "great" rivalry he's enjoyed over the years against the Jets, joy that comes via his 20-5 regular season record in meetings with New York. But it's rarely been easy, especially of late. Five of the last six games in the series have been decided by three points or less, two of the games going into overtime. The two games last year were decided by a total of merely three points.
Now, Brady leads the NFL's No. 1 scoring offense. Revis leads the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense. It's the ol' philosophical battle of offense vs. defense.
But then there is the consideration of the lesser side of the ball for each team. Ryan Fitzpatrick has been good enough for the Jets to win while riding the success of running back Chris Ivory, even though the journeyman quarterback has already thrown seven interceptions. Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler have been good enough to be undefeated, but there are still questions from front to back on the New England defense.
During the offseason, when the Patriots schedule was first being analyzed, the Week 5 trip to Dallas and Week 6 grudgefest with the Colts in Indy were circled as the must-see games. But those games - for various reasons including injuries and poor play - failed to live up to the hype.
Now, New York heads north up I-95 with its eye on divisional relevance after an impressive first month of football in what might just be the biggest game of the early season for both teams. Critics would argue Gang Green has built its 2015 reputation against suspect, subpar competition. But, as Bill Parcells might say, you are what your record (and maybe statistics) says you are.
Regardless, this next chapter in the rivalry has some spice to it. Brady is ready. Revis is ready. Sheldon Richardson certainly sounds ready. Belichick has it under control and Bowles has brought a similar style and calm early in his tenure.
The hate between these two franchises is quite real. That's why it's a real rivalry.
Here's a few key factors to keep in mind heading into this new chapter in the Border War that was reignited some by Revis' one-and-done year in New England:
In the zone - One of these two teams will probably be kicking themselves by Sunday night for kicking field goals Sunday afternoon. New England has the No. 2 red zone offense, so more often than not it has maximized its drives this season. But New York has been almost equally as successful, ranking No. 3. New York also brings the No. 1 red zone defense to the table, while New England is 28th in red zone D. There is a good chance both teams will move the ball - New England because it can do that on any defense and the Jets are good enough offensively to do it against the Patriots banged up, suspect defense. Move the ball and kick field goals and you'll regret it. Move it and punch it in, as these teams do as well as any, and you have a good chance to go home happy.
Will Ivory coast?- Chris Ivory is rolling leading the NFL in yards rushing per game. He's averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The Patriots run defense has not been great this season, allowing 4.8 yards per carry on the year. It's been up and down at times. Now, the group is dealing with an injury to Dont'a Hightower, maybe the front's best run player overall. If Hightower can't go for the second straight week, it's a major blow against the Jets very formidable, veteran offensive line. The Patriots defensive line will face a major test. Rookie Malcom Brown as well as veterans Alan Branch and Akiem Hicks could be leaned on in more traditional 4-3 fronts than the lighter 4-2-5 the Patriots have utilized often of late. Jerod Mayo may need to step up as a run stuffer. The edge is also a concern as Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones need to keep Ivory inside, without the help of Jabaal Sheard due to an ankle injury. The Jets will want to get the run rolling from early on with Ivory. The Patriots will try to make New York one dimensional to put pressure on Fitzpatrick. How Ivory goes, in some ways, may decide how the game goes, at least for the Jets offense.
All-Pro passing battle - Brady has a better knowledge of Revis after spending a year with him, especially battling him on the practice field. Revis is quite comfortable dealing with Julian Edelman, thanks to plenty of work together in a Patriots uniform. Will Brady totally go away from Revis? Who will Revis match up with? Edelman? Revis has been a turnover machine in his return to the Green. Brady has been as good with the ball as any passer in the game this season. In all likelihood the All-Pro passer and All-Pro cover man will play to a wash, eliminating the advantage for either side. But it's a fun storyline and battle to keep an eye on.
Go small and go fast- LeGarrette Blount is unlikely to get a ton of early carries against the Jets big, talented, bad-a$$ defensive front. Blount has 10 carries for just 15 yards in three games against the Jets. So he's probably an afterthought offensively early on. This looks like another week where Dion Lewis, assuming his abdominal injury is willing, is likely to be the main running back early on. It might make sense to go with a lot of two tight end, one back, two receiver looks against New York. Force the Jets to declare on defense and give Brady the ability to do almost anything out of such sets, include run the ball as Lewis has shown himself capable in his short time in New England. The Patriots can also alter the formation by alternating bodies opposite Edelman at receiver and at the second tight end spot with Scott Chandler and Michael Williams. It also feels like another week where the Patriots may want to increase the tempo to try to tire out the Jets oversized, aggressive front. New England's offense can take it to this defense, regardless of how good it is.
Stars come out - There will be a lot of impressive, elite talent on the field Sunday afternoon. Rob Gronkowksi, Brady and Revis are Hall of Fame players. Edelman, Collins, Devin McCourty, Butler, Richardson, Brandon Marshall, Antonio Cromartie, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Wilson are established or burgeoning talents. It will make for not only an interesting battle between the teams, but also a boatload of impressive one-on-one matchups. If Cromartie tries to man up Gronkowksi, Brady will still need to need his top playmaker to make plays. The Jets defensive line will be expected to dominate the Patriots offensive front. But will it happen, or will Sebastian Vollmer and Co. have something to say about that? This battle has a playoff-like feel to it, and in postseason matchups teams often count on their top players to make top plays to earn the win. That could be a big factor when the stars come out to play each other in this one.
Prediction - On paper this very much looks like the Patriots toughest test of the young season. The Jets are good in so many areas, both in terms of statistics and impressive personnel. Some of New York's strengths match up with the Patriots weaknesses, creating a perceived advantage for the visitor, especially up front on both sides of the ball. But in the end it's still a game where the pick-prone Fitzpatrick is trying to come into Gillette Stadium and beat a Brady-led Patriots team. That just doesn't happen too often. I don't see it happening this week, either. The Jets are talented enough to make this game a battle for at least a while. The Patriots probably won't march down the field every drive with ease. Ryan Allen probably won't get the day off. The defense, especially with its injuries, will probably see Ivory and Co. move the ball. Like the recent meetings this feels like another rivalry game that will be a struggle, go down to the wire (or at least well into the second half) but the Patriots will get the job done in the end. It all will come together for something like a Patriots 27-20 victory to remain undefeated and the Jets move on, after a game Bowles correctly assessed that would neither make nor break his team.
What other things will you be watching for in this latest installment of the Border War? Let us know with a comment below!