Facing a short week, the Pats will look to extend their four-game winning streak against their arch rivals, the Jets. What looked to be a walkover less than a week ago now shapes up to be a big challenge.
What we do know just a couple of days removed from the Pats' rousing, 59-24 win over the Colts, is that Rob Gronkowski will be out for this game after surgery to repair his broken arm. Chandler Jones, who was also injured in that Colts game, could also be out. And Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly may each miss another game on the O-line as well.
The Pats, of course, barely squeaked out a win against the Jets the last time these two teams met, squandering a fourth quarter lead then surviving a massive fumble by Devin McCourty on a late kick return to escape with a 29-26 OT win at Gillette Stadium.
The Jets, meanwhile, somehow managed to quiet all of the typical noise surrounding them for at least a few days with a tidy, 27-13 win over the Rams in St. Louis last week. Mark Sanchez played his best game in weeks, completing 75 percent of his passes at nine yards per attempt, not turning the ball over and posting a 118.3 passer rating, his best since that near miss against the Pats in Week 7.
None of that really means anything in regards to Thursday night, however. Every time the Jets and Pats meet for the most part, the games are intense, competitive and hard-fought. Turkey Day should be no different, especially with the Jets earning back a little self-respect and confidence on the heels of their win over the Rams.
As always with these two teams, there are plenty of subplots, twists and scenarios to examine. So with that, let's get into some of the more compelling aspects of this rematch, a game that will seal another division title for the Pats if they can pull it out.
When the Patriots pass the ball.
One silver lining to the Gronk injury is that the Pats will be getting Aaron Hernandez back following an extra four weeks to rest his ankle. Hernandez came back for the Seattle game in Week 6 and it was too soon, even though he caught a TD pass in that one. Watching him hobbling around, unable to get to throws he catches in his sleep and struggling just to walk back to the huddle in both that game and the first one with the Jets was painful even to watch. The guess here is that the decision to shut him back down was a smart one and he'll look a lot more like his usual, self on Thursday night.
What will be interesting to see is whether or not the Pats show as many multiple tight end sets with Gronk missing as they might if he was healthy. Visanthe Shiancoe is a nice insurance policy, a big target who can run and has always been known for being a very good pass-catcher. But don't be surprised to see the offense spend more time showing three receiver looks at the Jets secondary, as that positional grouping has worked out very well for them over the past two weeks (96 points scored).
If the Pats do decide that more multiple receiver sets are the way to go in this one, how the snaps are divvied up warrants a closer look. Against the Colts, Julian Edelman climbed over Brandon Lloyd on the depth chart and responded with the best game of his career. The Pats utilized Edelman's shiftiness, strength and quickness by calling a handful of screens or quick throws and it worked out splendidly. It would be foolish to assume that Edelman can or will produce like he did against Indy every week, but if Josn McDaniels and the offensive staff think they might be onto something with him, especially considering how hard they tried to get him more involved in the offense earlier in the season, he could be a focal point again in this game.
Knowing the Jets, they will likely attempt to throw multiple looks, blitzes and coverages at Tom Brady while doing what they can to limit Wes Welker. Welker, as massively important as he is, will be counted on that much more with Gronk out. The Jets do not have a very strong pass rush, which means Brady should have plenty of time to throw, even with all of the disguising and shifting they like to do. Even without Gronk, the passing game should be able to function at a high level.
When the Jets run the ball.
With a healthy stable of running backs, the Jets finally were able to take the ball and their fate out of Sanchez's hands against St. Louis and run it down an opponent's throat. 41 running plays later, they had 124 yards on the ground and a couple of TDs and while the yards per rushing attempt were low, the 41 attempts represented the team's realization that their only chance to control the game's tempo offensively was to run, run and run some more.
Whether this will work against the Pats is anyone's guess. The Jets, even with Sanchez at QB, still managed to have plenty of success throwing the ball the last time these two teams met, with the Pats pass defense managing to make Sanchez look like Joe Namath for a day.
The Pats have looked weaker against the run during the past two weeks than at any other time this season. They shored things up in that regard against the Colts once Jones went down, moving Rob Ninkovich to the right side and playing Jermaine Cunningham on the left. If Jones, who has struggled in a major way since the bye week, is out for this game, look for the Pats to play their base sets in a similar way.
Despite the Pats' problems defending the pass, which got much better for the final three quarters of the Colts game, the Jets may want to continue to force the issue on the ground in this one. Not only are they healthier at that spot than they've been in weeks, but the combination of the Pats' recent issues against the run and the potential to keep Brady and the Pats' offense on the sideline if they can control the tempo look to be possible advantages. Both Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell looked strong against the Rams and for the Jets, considering how limited they are in the passing game, keeping Sanchez from being able to make too many of his requisite mistakes will be huge.
The Pats will need to step this part of their defense up in a major way. Stopping the run and making Sanchez the focal point is the answer, even with a secondary as shaky as New England's. He will almost certainly screw up at least once if the ball is in his hands more than it should be and the Pats showed against Indy that when they get aggressive and start attacking on D, they can make things happen. They have to know this, which is why they'll be well prepared to shut down the Jets' ground game and make Sanchez beat them.
When the Jets pass the ball.
This is it, the truest test for the Pats. In the first meeting, Sanchez came in ranked in the bottom three of pretty much every passing statistical category known to man and shredded the Pats secondary anyway, passing for 328 yards at eight yards per attempt and registering a 90.3 passer rating. It was the surest sign that the Pats were in serious trouble defensively. Getting taken to the woodshed by Russell Wilson was bad enough. Having a guy as limited as Sanchez torch you up and down the field with pretty much no resistance was the nadir.
The Pats did make some plays on defense in that game including the game winner, a now seemingly routine strip sack by Rob Ninkovich in overtime. The Pats knack for causing turnovers (they lead the league in turnover differential at plus-20), especially at the most crucial of times, has covered up for a lot of their defensive shortcomings over the course of the year, that game being no exception.
Last Sunday against the Colts, the defense got off to a slow start but recovered in time to really hit on something that worked for them and allowed them to play one of their best, most complete games of the year. They got pressure on Indy QB Andrew Luck on a much more consistent basis than at most any other point this year, which allowed the beleaguered secondary to make some plays.
There's no reason for the Pats to abandon this approach even in the slightest against someone like Sanchez, whose awareness in the pocket is next to nothing and whose penchant for shooting himself in the foot is remarkable. The Jets' offensive line is fairly suspect as well and outside of tight end Dustin Keller, they have no weapons that actually scare anyone, factors that should only enhance the invitation for the Pats to aggressively attack on defense.
Whether or not they take this tack is anyone's guess. They looked like they'd hit on something defensively against the Rams as well only to go back to the same conservative, passive, keep-everything-in-front-of-them scheme that they'd spent most of the season using against Buffalo in Week 10 and it resulted in a near calamity.
So that's where we're at with this match up come Thursday night. If the Pats come out aggressive, attack and force the issue, they have the advantage. If they revert back to their vanilla, deep zone, horror show, the Jets will have the advantage.
We'll see come game time.
Advantage: Toss up.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 20
This is going to be a much tougher game for the Pats than it looked, say, four days ago. The Jets' win last week was huge for them especially after the week they leading up to it. Now, they have some of their swagger and confidence back and that, along with the facts that, a) their season is pretty much over if they lose, b) they probably should have beaten the Pats back in Week 7 and they know it, and c) the Pats could take a bit of time to get used to life without Gronk, could all spell trouble for the visitors. In the end, the Pats are a better, more complete team with more talent and clear advantages at most positions. That should be enough. But never underestimate a desperate team, especially if it is both confident and a division rival. The Jets, as tumultuous and disappointing as their season has been, are suddenly very dangerous.