The Patriots and Jets, being AFC East divisional opponents, have played twice this season already, splitting the regular-season contests. That makes this game a rubber match between the Patriots and the team they've played most in franchise history; this will be the 95th meeting between the two teams. The Pats are 4-1 in the playoffs against divisional opponents, historically. They beat the Jets in their only previous postseason meeting following the 1985 season. Below are five things that will help the Patriots improve their overall record on Wild Card Weekend to 4-2.
Avoid mental errors and penalties
The Patriots enter this game having not given the football away in their last three contests. Prior to that point in the season, however, fumbles were a bit of a concern. The Patriots lost three of them and the game at Miami, and two more in each of the two games before that. Prior to the Detroit game, fullback Heath Evans shared a John Heisman quote from the wall of his head coach's office at Auburn University. It said: "Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football." That line is truer in the playoffs than any other time of the year. On Friday, coach Bill Belichick talked a little bit about the added pressure of playoff football.
"Everything is just… it's heightened," he said. "I mean one mistake, one play and the season is over, or could be over. So I think that's different than playing in the eighth game of the year. And I'm not saying the eighth game of the year is not a big game, not an important game. But it's hard to be eliminated from the rest of your season on a play in the sixth game of the season, no matter how bad it is. And not that any of us want those, but it's just not the same. At this point in the season, one play, one call, one game and that's going to be it for somebody. We all know that."
The Patriots lost to the Jets in November, in case you haven't been reminded of that enough this week, and the Patriots coughed it up twice and intercepted quarterback Chad Pennington once in that game. With such high stakes, winning the turnover battle could be crucial, but that hasn't been nearly as much of a problem in recent weeks as penalties have. The Pats produced six penalties two weeks ago and nine last week. They'll need to be careful not to make silly mistakes from here on out if they don't want those things coming back to knock them off the Super Bowl ladder.
Play tough third-down defense
The Jets finished the year ranked fourth in the NFL at converting third downs, producing a first down on 43.8 percent of their third downs this season. Pennington and his offense stayed on the field in 17-of-31 third downs against the Patriots this year (55 percent). That's high considering the Pats finished the season with the eighth-best third-down defense in the league, allowing teams to convert just 35.9 percent of their third downs. The Jets were so efficient on third down that they produced the longest scoring drive the Patriots allowed this year when the teams met in November.
"Even on a regular day, that's pretty much unheard of," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs on Thursday of the Jets 16-play drive that burned 9:12 off the clock. "The key to those guys is third-down efficiency, how they're able to stay in manageable down and distances and are able to convert those.
"I don't want to give our tendencies away, but we do have things we want to change in the third-down passing game and short routes," Hobbs said. Whatever the Patriots defense has planned to stop the Jets from ending up in third-and-short situations this week, let's hope it works, or the Pats defense may have trouble getting off the field.
Run the football
The Jets run defense finished the regular season ranked 24th in the NFL. The Patriots have the fifth best running attack in the league. That's a recipe for success. The Patriots ran well against the Jets, who allowed 4.6 yards per carry this year, in both of their regular-season games. However, the Patriots running game fell off a little in the last six games of the season while its passing game heated up. Rookie running back Laurence Maroney sat out of Weeks 14 and 15 with a back injury. His production dipped for a few games, but he racked up 73 yards last weekend against the Titans – the most since his 125-yard game at Cincy in Week 4. His contribution last week was a good indication that he's feeling better. He could be a major weapon this week, and veteran Corey Dillon led the team with 812 yards this season on 199 carries despite predictions that his age would slow him down (He produced 733 rushing yards last year). So the meat of the Patriots ground attack should be ready for this game, leaving Kevin Faulk as the only question mark. He's been suffering from a sore knee since his 68-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Texans in Week 15. He said this week that he's taking things day-by-day, but is hoping to play. Even if he doesn't contribute much, the Patriots should be able to sustain drives with a solid running game. If linebacker Jonathan Vilma and the Jets defense have found a way to stop it, the Patriots could have trouble producing touchdowns, forced instead to settle for field goals.
Be special on special teams
The Jets are always good on special teams," said coach Belichick on Thursday. "They're good again. They haven't given up any long returns this year -- they're the only team in the league. Justin Miller is a Pro Bowl (kick) returner.[Rashad] Washington has given them a lot of plays on the punt return. They're a good punt rushing team. They're a good field goal rushing team, as we saw. The field goal kicker is good.[Mike] Nugent has made a lot of kicks. He's played very consistently. He's made some big kicks for them. I think they're good on special teams. They have good specialists. They have good core players. They're well coached. They're tough. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They don't get a lot of penalties on special teams. They're good at everything."
They're good. Enough said.
The Patriots special teams, on the other hand, slipped last week when Titans punt returner Pacman Jones sprinted 81 yards for a touchdown. They're ranked 20th in the league at covering kickoffs and 26th in the league at punt return defense. Coverage is going to need to be on point this weekend if the Pats don't want Pennington and the Jets offense to get the ball on a short field. Rookie kicker Stephen Gostkowski has done a fine job replacing Adam Vinatieri this year, but playoff time is where "Automatic" Adam secured his spot in Patriots history.
Stop Jerricho Cotchery
Although Laveranues Coles is Pennington's favorite target, Cotchery has become Patriots poison this season. In two games against the Pats, he snared 12 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He finished just behind Coles' 1,098 receiving yards with 961, and both of them averaged over 11.5 yards per catch. Pennington was named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year after slinging 173 passes to these two with a twice-repaired rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder. Both of them are excellent at gaining yards after the catch, and if Pennington gets time to survey the field, Cotchery and Coles can both find openings.
The Patriots held practice inside the Dana Farber Field House today wearing shorts/sweats, shells and helmets. The only player not seen on the field during the portion of practice available for viewing by the local press was safety Rodney Harrison, who's been declared "Out" for this game. … In the locker room, injured reserve safety Tebucky Jones made an appearance. Also on injured reserve, linebacker Don Davis was seen at Gillette Stadium today. … Nose tackle Vince Wilfork held court with the media for a long while today. He could be returning to the field this week after sitting out the last three games with an ankle injury. … Asked about the regular season by a member of the New York media, Kevin Faulk epitomized the Patriots focus in preparing for the playoffs when he said, "No matter how you got here, it doesn't matter. It's what's going to happen from this point on."