Despite having zero playoff stakes in the season's final week, Sunday's matchup for the Patriots against the Jets could be a historic day at Gillette Stadium.
New England holds the longest active winning streak against a single opponent in the NFL, with 15 consecutive victories over their division rival. With a win on Sunday, the Patriots will set a new franchise record for the longest winning streak against a single opponent. The Patriots haven't lost to the Jets since an overtime loss in December 2015 and have an average margin of victory of 16.8 points since the streak began.
The Patriots winning streak over the Jets, which they extended to 15 games with a 15-10 win in the Meadowlands earlier this season, is one of the last odes to the dynasty era that still exists. The other dynasty-era reminder that's still standing is head coach Bill Belichick, adding to the historical element of Sunday's regular-season finale.
Although they're in similar positions for different reasons, Jets owner Woody Johnson issued a vote of confidence for head coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas. Both figureheads in New York will return in 2024, with the Jets owner giving his brass a mulligan following Aaron Rodgers's season-ending injury in Week 1.
Like the Patriots, the Jets third-ranked defense in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) has been saddled with the NFL's worst offense by DVOA. Following an Achilles injury to Rodgers four snaps into his first season in New York, the Jets started three different quarterbacks, including returning to former second overall pick Zach Wilson. The Jets went 4-7 in Wilson's starts and are 6-10 overall while currently holding the eighth overall pick in next April's draft. On Sunday, Trevor Siemian is expected to make his third consecutive start.
Despite their similar struggles on offense sans Rodgers, Douglas and Saleh will return in 2024. On the opposite sideline, Belichick hasn't gotten the same public vote of confidence amidst a 4-12 season. Instead, based on reports, there's a chance that Belichick could be coaching his last game as the Patriots head coach after an unprecedented 24-year run.
It could be a memorable day for Belichick as he looks to set another franchise record in possibly his last game on the home sideline at Gillette Stadium. Although nothing is set in stone, it will be worth taking in the moment in what could be the end of the greatest coaching run in professional sports history. If this week's game is Belichick's last hurrah in New England, it would be fitting for him to go out by making it 16-straight wins versus the Jets.
However, the other angle that needs to be addressed is how the result of Sunday's game could impact the Patriots draft positioning for 2024. Currently, the Patriots hold the third overall pick. With a win, they could slide as far as fifth, while a loss could see them finish as high as second overall, depending on numerous results across the NFL in Week 18.
Since the Patriots coaching staff and players aren't in the business of tanking, the chips will fall where they fall. Still, it's only fair as a fan to root for or against the team however you see fit: A win extends the streak over the Jets and potentially sees Belichick walk off on a high note, while a loss could land the Patriots the second overall pick next spring.
With conflicting rooting interests abound, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder on Sunday. But one thing is sure: this will be a storied ending to a disappointing 2023 season either way.
Here are our keys to victory and key matchups for the Patriots to earn their 16th consecutive win over the Jets in Sunday's regular-season finale:
Offensive Key - Exploit Jets Coverage Tendencies to Make the Most of Final Audition for QB Bailey Zappe, Patriots Offense For Roles in 2024
Knowing the Patriots will treat this like any other game to win on Sunday, current members of the offense are auditioning for roles in 2024.
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Among those auditioning is quarterback Bailey Zappe, who had a reality check in Buffalo last week with three interceptions in the first 20 minutes of a 27-21 loss to the Bills. Although he doesn't shoulder all the blame, the increasing sample size proves Zappe is not a long-term answer as the Pats QB1 either. Yes, he moves around better and generates more explosive plays than Mac Jones. But, ultimately, the production is similar for the two quarterbacks.
If you were out on Jones for his steep decline since his rookie season, which is understandable, it's hard to be in on Zappe. Still, the second-year QB could be trying out for a spot as a backup/bridge/spot starter in 2024. With the Pats likely dipping back into the top of the draft for another run at a franchise quarterback, Zappe could keep the seat warm to begin next season or back up the next guy in New England.
For those purposes, let's examine how Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could game-plan a stingy Jets defense to give Zappe a chance.
Starting with the skinny on the Jets defense, head coach Robert Saleh brought the 49ers variation of the "Seattle 3" scheme to New York when he was hired in 2021. Along with having good players at all three levels, the Jets are one of the league's best defenses because they're very sound in their quarters-based, even front system. Unlike the traditional Seattle scheme, the Jets primary coverage is quarters or Cover-4, playing a four-deep zone at the second-highest rate in the NFL (28.5%).
New York trusts two great corners, Sauce Garnder and D.J. Reed, to handle perimeter receivers, so the Jets will also mix in Cover-1 man at the eighth-highest clip (29.4%). Between quarters and man coverage, offenses struggle to generate explosive plays through the air because the Jets don't beat themselves in the backend and don't need to commit resources to the pass rush to generate pressure. Overall, the Jets use a four-man rush on 76.1% of their defense snaps (fourth-highest rate).
Despite the second-lowest blitz rate and minimal usage of exotic pressure schemes, the Jets have the fifth-highest pressure rate in the NFL. With Pats tormentor Quinnen Williams (64 pressures) leading the way, Bryce Huff (60), Jermaine Johnson (53), and John Franklin Myers (47) form one of the best front-fours in football that is a handful to block.
The Jets defense rushes four to drop seven into coverage often, making finding open areas to throw the ball downfield challenging, especially with little time due to the pass rush. To beat the Jets pass defense, attacking their base coverage rules is a good place to start. For example, there is a vulnerability in their quarters calls to the weak side.
Based on film study, the Jets will have the weakside linebacker match running backs out of the backfield. Last week, the Browns exposed this tendency by using condensed or nub formations to occupy the WILL by forcing him to widen at the snap, thus creating a void in the zone.
Here, the Browns are running a mesh-rail concept with the back running a vertical route with intersecting crossers over the middle. As you can see, the WILL matches the running back, allowing the crossers to put MLB C.J. Mosley in conflict. Mosley can stay in the middle of the field to cover the "sit" route or attach to the crosser from No. 2 (left slot), but he can't be in two places at once. Browns QB Joe Flacco uses a little look-off to make Mosley wrong.
The Patriots ran an almost identical concept back in Week 3 for a successful play. Again, the middle/hook zones are in a bind with the WILL matching the back. This time, the 'backers widened just enough for Mac Jones to thread the needle on the "sit" route to Kendrick Bourne.
Here's another example from the Browns win over the Jets last week, where Flacco generated +0.17 expected points added per drop-back in a 37-20 win in Cleveland. This time, the Browns run a spot concept out of a two-tight end nub formation, where the wing tight end is the furthest player out on the line of scrimmage. With the WILL widening and the outside corner needing to respect the corner route, it's an easy throw for Flacco to the curl.
A red-hot Flacco put up an impressive stat line against the Jets by completing 8-of-9 passes for 85 yards against quarters with a 4.3 average air distance. In other words, he dink-and-dunked them, and along with a 46% success rate on the ground, it forced New York into post-safety shells.
Cleveland succeeded on the ground by running schemes with pullers, mostly long trap/counter plays, and G Lead, where the play-side guard pulls rather than pulls from the backside. The gap schemes allowed the Browns to block down on an attacking front, with the lead blockers working up to the second level. From there, Flacco had 110 yards on six completions off play-action, with the Browns perfectly marrying their run-blocking schemes to their play-action concepts to create confusion.
There's a blueprint for the Patriots to exploit the Jets defense in similar ways as the Browns did a week ago. However, the players auditioning for roles next season along the offensive line need to put in the work. Rookie interior offensive linemen Sidy Sow, Atonio Mafi, and Jake Andrews will have their hands full with Williams. On the outside, Mike Onwenu has a marquee matchup against Franklin-Myers in the Jets base fronts.
Schematically, Cleveland's formula was successful because their route concepts smartly attacked the weaknesses in the Jets base schemes. However, Flacco was only under pressure on six drop-backs, and the Browns ran the ball well, so it really started up front.
New England's offensive line play has been one of its biggest issues offensively this season. This is a big week for their current O-Line group to end the season on a high note.
Defensive Key - Can the Patriots Run Defense Cap Off Excellent Season vs. Jets RB Breece Hall and Company?
As things currently stand, the Patriots have the best run defense in terms of yards per carry allowed in the last decade in the NFL – an impressive stat despite the team's record.
New England is allowing 3.194 yards per rushing attempt this season, the lowest mark in the NFL since the Lions allowed a 3.169 average in the 2014 season. That's a stat that gets lost on some amidst a losing season. Still, some of the Patriots brightest spots, such as Christian Barmore and Anfernee Jennings's emergence, are fueling the run defense.
The final challenge for the Patriots run defense is Jets RB Breece Hall. Hall is a one-man show in a Jets offense that's a shell of itself with Siemian at quarterback. Hall has 1,395 scrimmage yards with his 74 receptions adding to his all-around game as a breakaway ball carrier. The Jets running back also ranks ninth in rushing yards over expectation (+122) and is second in breakaway rate (43.2%), producing ten runs over 15-plus yards on 185 attempts this season.
Although Jets OC Nathaniel Hackett isn't an overly impressive play designer, you'd think this is a heavily watered-down version of what Hackett imagined when the Jets acquired Rodgers. New York's offense has been stripped down to Hall and WR Garrett Wilson going supernova, and gadget plays to bursty slot/returner Xavier Gipson. As a result, the Jets are dead-last across the board in terms of offensive efficiency: 32nd in total DVOA, 32nd in pass EPA, and 32nd in rush EPA – it's been as bad in East Rutherford as it has been in Foxborough offensively.
Wilson deserves credit for putting up over 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season with lousy quarterback play. But, looking at this matchup, Hall is the one player who could take this game over for the Jets. Over the last two weeks, Hall leads all running backs with 317 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. He's as dangerous a pass-catcher as a runner, while the Jets run the ball with good variety to unlock his big-play ability.
The two run-blocking schemes the Jets use the most to get Hall in space are duo and outside zone. On duo schemes, Hall can allow the double-team blocks in front of him to move the line of scrimmage while he reads the linebacker level. Depending on how the defense fits the double-teams, Hall can find the open gaps and burst into the secondary.
Hall is also an effective cutback runner on outside zone schemes. He has a knack for reading the flow of the defense to find his best entry point, typically "banging" runs off-tackle or cutting back across the defense to get downhill. Plus, he's more elusive than it seems in tight spaces.
As a receiver, most of Hall's targets are on flat and angle routes out of the backfield. However, the Jets will flex him out wide occasionally (41 routes), mostly out of empty formations. Hall will then run go routes, slants, and shallow crossers. When he is aligned outside, the Pats will need to treat him as more than a running back. Instead, you'd expect New England to cover Hall with Kyle Dugger, Marte Mapu, or Jalen Mills.
The Jets offense only stresses the Patriots defense by Hall taking over on Sunday. If the Pats can make the Jets one-dimensional, they'll gladly take their chances with the game in Siemian's hands. Siemian struggles with post-snap coverage rotations and pressure, so getting him into obvious pass situations in long down and distances could bring on the turnovers.
New England's run defense has been excellent in a disappointing season, so here's one more test with an explosive back on Sunday.
Patriots Interior O-Line vs. Jets DT Quinnen Williams - Williams has been a thorn in the Patriots side over the last few seasons. In Week 3, the Jets DT had six pressures with two QB hits. His lateral quickness and snap reaction to get on the edges instantly are rare. The Pats will likely start Atonio Mafi (LG) and Sidy Sow (RG) alongside David Andrews in this one. With the Jets probably targeting Mafi as they did with Cole Strange, it wouldn't be surprising to see Jake Andrews get reps at left guard after he looked solid in his 13 snaps last week. Williams can potentially wreck this game for the Patriots offense on Sunday.
Patriots CB Jonathan Jones vs. Jets WR Garrett Wilson - The Patriots haven't shadowed receivers with CBs Shaun Wade and Alex Austin playing meaningful snaps recently. In Week 3, the Pats had Christian Gonzalez to shadow Wilson, with the rookie holding him to three catches for 18 yards on 23 routes. Last week, Jonathan Jones drew Stefon Diggs in gotta have it situations. My guess is Jones will draw Wilson in high-stress man coverage. Siemian will give Wilson a few chances on jump balls that the Patriots must be ready for on Sunday.
Patriots RT Mike Onwenu vs. Jets DE John Franklin-Myers - I'm on the record stating that Onwenu is a better fit as a guard than at right tackle. But if the Patriots keep running a downhill/gap run scheme, you can talk me into Onwenu finding a permanent home at right tackle. They've had bigger tackles, such as Marcus Cannon, in that spot before. Franklin-Myers is a great final test for Onwenu, who's had issues with his balance and making first meaningful contact as a blocky tackle rather than a lengthy athlete.