Prime time football! The battle between longtime rivals for early season supremacy in the AFC East. Bill Belichick vs. Rex Ryan. Patriots Nation vs. Gang Green. Tom Brady vs. Geno Smith. OK, so tonight's game between New England (1-0) and New York (1-0) at Gillette Stadium isn't exactly the latest battle in what's always been an entertaining Border War. Neither squad looked overly sharp on opening day, and both offenses are banged up and less formidable than is ideal. Still, it's an important game for both franchises at this early point in the season. Belichick's team is looking to build some momentum and consistency early on in what's a sort of transitional year in which the team is still expected by many to compete for a top spot in the AFC. Ryan is looking to pick up wins any way he can, likely working all fall to keep his job. Throw in the possibility of a little rain or thunder, and NFL Network is going to get a gritty divisional battle for its first broadcast of the year. As you try to focus on your workday leading up to game time, crack open this work-safe, alcohol-free Jets at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
1. Ridley's role – Last we saw Stevan Ridley he was standing on the sidelines after another bout of fumble issues. That allowed Shane Vereen to have a huge game in Buffalo, unfortunately the versatile back is now on injured reserve and out of action for at least eight weeks. Brandon Bolden is nursing a knee injury. Recently re-signed back Leon Washington has a thigh issue and
probably isn't a huge option in the backfield anyway. And LeGarrette Blount looked like a bit of a plodding, 250-plus-pound running back in limited action in Buffalo. Put it all together and it seems that Ridley's time in doghouse has to be short lived. Tom Brady voiced his support of the back this week. Belichick said the team will need him. And the longer he sits the more of a mental issue it might become. I think Ridley gets back on the horse quickly against the Jets as a big part of an offense that has limited options early in the season. The Jets have some talent up front, particularly Muhammad Wilkerson, but had the 26th run defense a year ago. New England's offensive line should be a strength of the team given the investment and continuity in the group. They should prove that tonight opening holes for Ridley in what could be a rainy, sloppy game. Take the pressure off the pass by running. Take the pressure off Ridley by giving him a chance to redeem himself.
2. Contained PRESSURE – New England is dealing with an athletic rookie quarterback for the second straight week to open the new season. On some level that could allow for some carryover in the game plan during a short week of preparation. E.J. Manuel was not sacked last week in Buffalo, and seemed pretty comfortable completing 67 percent of his passes with a 105.5 passer rating in his NFL debut. Sure the Patriots were likely employing a contained pass rush against a guy who still hit them for a 19-yard scramble. But contained pressure should still include some pressure, and Manuel never really seemed to feel any pressure in Buffalo last Sunday. Sure Smith is New York's leading rusher with six carries for 47 yards against the Bucs. Given the Jets limited weapons at running back and receiver, New England clearly doesn't want to let the rookie passer run free. But you can't just let him set his feet and make all his throws. Contained rush means not giving up the edge or huge lanes for Smith to scramble. It doesn't mean that guys like Chandler Jones and Tommy Kelly can't get after Smith. The rookie was sacked five times in Week 1. Jones needs to get going in his Year 2 jump. It won't be easy, necessarily, against D'Brickashaw Ferguson, but the battle of former first-round picks can't be one-sided for New York.
3. Rookie receivers – It was clearly not a great first impression for New England's trio of rookie receivers – Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce. Thompkins looked out of sorts all day. Dobson was inactive with a hamstring injury. And Boyce was a bit player who didn't record a catch. With Danny Amendola (doubtful) seemingly likely to miss Thursday night's game with a
groin injury and Vereen not an option to boost the passing attack out of the backfield, Brady is going to need a rookie to make some plays. Thompkins would be the most likely candidate given he was the most consistent of the youngsters all summer. Brady also seemed comfortable continuing to throw to Thompkins even when it wasn't working last week. Dobson also sounded like a guy all week who wanted/expected to make his NFL debut in Week 2. That said, something tells me Boyce could be the target on a few shot plays that might give him a chance to change the game. He has the speed to get behind the defense and/or make things happen on end-arounds. Regardless of which guy it is – or even if it's a more productive combination of the three – the rookie receivers need to be positive factors for the Patriots offense to have a chance to be less lackluster than it was in Week 1.
4. Talib it to Aqib – Clearly Aqib Talib is New England's top corner. He's the guy who'll get the opponent's top target in most weeks. He had one communication issue in Buffalo that led to an 18-yard touchdown for the Bills. Beyond that, the pass defense wasn't too bad. The Jets have maybe even fewer options in the passing game than the Patriots. Jeremy Kerley is out. Santonio Holmes isn't exactly his Super Bowl MVP self. That makes Stephen Hill maybe the most dangerous weapon for New York. He's a bigger receiver with the ability to get down the field. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Jets challenge the Patriots secondary, and Talib, with Hill. New York doesn't have much on offense and I can't think that they expect to march down the field in long scoring drives. Their best chance is getting yards in chunks. Talib and the Patriots need to make sure that doesn't happen. And prove that guys getting behind the secondary isn't going to be a carry-over problem from a year ago.
5. Julian seizer – Julian Edelman had a very nice opening day with seven catches, including both of the Patriots touchdowns in the winning effort. He did that working with Amendola and Vereen.
Thursday night he'll become the only experienced, somewhat reliable option that Brady has to work with. Edelman has had big games in the past. He's been the primary target against the Jets in the past. He has the versatility to work inside and out, but I'd expect to see him getting plenty of action out of the slot and underneath. That means he probably won't be seeing top Jets corner Antonio Cromartie. The Edelman matchup vs. either Dee Milliner or Kyle Wilson could be one that Brady will look to exploit. Edelman has had a career of sort of being the bridesmaid and never the bride in New England. Thursday night he's the bride and needs to seize the opportunity to be the focal point of the passing game.
6. Josh's job – All week people have been talking about the pressure that's on Brady, the rookie receivers, Ridley and others as the Patriots work through the early season and a lack of weapons in the passing game. Really, the most pressure might be on Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He's the one who has to devise the schemes and personnel groupings to maximize his limited talent/experience on offense, especially in the passing game. Like Brady, we've seen McDaniels make do with what he has in the past, utilizing a variety of ways to skin the opposition. But this may be the biggest challenge of his career in New England. Will he turn things over to the ground game? Which back will handle the rock? Will he use the high-percentage short passing game? How can he get the most of the rookies? McDaniels knows pressure from his time as a head coach, but to some degree that pressure is already turned up a bit on him in New England. No joshing, McDaniels has a lot on his plate to coordinate right now.
Prediction: If the Patriots were facing a team with what I thought was a dangerous or even productive offense, I might think New England was in trouble. If the first three games of the year
were flipped with the second trio of contests against potential playoff teams, I might look at things differently. But coming home on a short week against a Jets team that was pretty fortunate to win on opening day, I don't see things quite as dire right now as some do. I expect the Patriots and Ridley to run the ball with a decent level of success. I'm looking for Brady to be far more productive in the short passing game and for the aerial attack to be at least a bit more consistent overall. Most importantly I just don't see the Jets moving the ball with any consistency. So assuming the Patriots don't turn the ball over three times and don't allow big plays that bring yards in chunks or easy scores, I look for New England to win a game that will never really be in doubt. I'm going with a 21-9 victory for the Patriots. It's not the usual pretty, high-scoring win that fans are used to. But it's enough to get to 2-0 and move forward with the work in progress.