WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN
The Patriots need to get Sony Michel more involved offensively now that Josh Gordon is done for the season. That was the case in the Patriots win over Buffalo that saw the rookie rush for 116 yards on 18 carries. The productivity of the passing game has slipped since the second half of the Miami game, so the importance of Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White in the running game has increased. The addition of linebacker Avery Williamson gives the Jets a legit weapon against the run, but overall they’ve failed to stop the run consistently, ranking near the bottom of the league in yards allowed per game and yards allowed per play. The Patriots have to commit themselves to running the ball to set up the play-action passing game, which has been their most effective tool in terms of moving the ball in recent games. Last week was a smashing success with 273 rushing yards against the Bills. They need more of the same this week against a sagging Jets run defense.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS
The Jets aren’t great or terrible against the pass. They’re just a middle-of-the-pack team that is surprisingly good on third down but doesn’t force nearly enough turnovers or get to the quarterback with enough consistency. The underwhelming Trumaine Johnson, who signed a $72-million contract in the offseason, has been the poster child for the Jets defensive struggles, but there are several culprits. Can the Patriots rediscover the magic in their passing game? Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski haven’t been nearly as consistent as they were in recent years, and Tom Brady has had some questionable mental errors over the past few weeks. With Gordon done, that’s one less weapon, but the silver lining is it may force the Patriots to revert to the quick strikes and check-downs that worked earlier in the season. Expect more from White.
WHEN THE JETS RUN
Statistics would indicate the Jets should do what most teams do and simply run the football against a New England team that has been historically bad against the run over the past few weeks. The problem is the Jets are completely decimated in the backfield. First, they lost Bilal Powell to a neck injury in October. Isaiah Crowell, who rushed for a franchise-record 219 yards earlier this season, appeared to be the logical choice to fill in, but he declined quickly once Powell went down and then landed on injured reserve himself with a toe injury. Now it’s up to Elijah McGuire, a decent-yet-fumble-prone second-year back who scored a touchdown in a narrow loss to Houston and scored again last week against Green Bay. The Patriots can’t seem to stop anyone not named the Bills lately, but this could be another cure for their ailing run defense.
WHEN THE JETS PASS
Sam Darnold has done what most rookie quarterbacks do: He makes the occasional big play and turns a few heads but also struggles with the inconsistencies that plague most young players who try to do too much. The problem is Darnold has next to nothing to work with offensively. With the running game decimated, Darnold is left with the streaky Robby Anderson, the oft-injured Quincy Enunwa and occasional threat Chris Herndon, who had one of his better games against New England earlier this season. The Jets may not have a receiver catch more than 70 passes this season. The top threat to score is Anderson, but he tends to disappear from time to time. The Patriots have the ability to dial up the pressure and should do so Sunday against a quarterback who has no choice but to throw early and often to give his team a chance to win.
The Patriots have cleaned up their act in recent weeks, blocking two punts against the Dolphins and showing all-out hustle and effort to down a punt at the 1-yard line against Pittsburgh. They also got a hand on a Bills punt last week. But the Patriots have continued to struggle covering kickoffs, and the Jets excel on special teams. New York’s consistency in the return game on both sides of the ball — plus the accuracy of kicker Jason Myers — are the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary season. Andre Roberts is excellent in the return game and is arguably as important to the offense as any of the other skill-position players given his ability to put the team on a short field. This is the one area where the Jets can gain an edge, and they will need all the help they can get with limited resources on offense and defense.
The bottom line is the Patriots are playing for something relatively important, and the Jets aren’t. Spoiling their rival’s bid at potentially earning the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs would be a great ending to an otherwise dismal season for the Jets, but talent and execution will dictate who wins out on Sunday. The Patriots are practically unbeatable at home and have the deeper roster and more stable coaching staff. Needing a win to wrap up the No. 2 seed, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Patriots get befuddled at home by a rookie quarterback in a game that could earn them an extra week off in the postseason. Considering the most indispensable players on the roster are in their mid-to-late 30s — or, in the case of Brady, their 40s — the Patriots will likely go all out to get that extra week of rest. In fact, they’re treating Week 17 like a playoff game.