Prior to the start of the regular season, two projections were common among journalists, analysts and fans alike: The New England Patriots would dominate en route to what likely will be the AFC's best record while the New York Jets would be in the race for the number one overall pick in next year's draft. So far, those projections have not materialized themselves.
Five weeks into the season, the Patriots and their division rivals from New York both sit at 3-2. On Sunday, the two teams will meet at the Jets' MetLife Stadium in what is one of the marquee matchups of week six – a game that might have a big influence on the two teams' respective seasons and their standing in the AFC East. But how did it come to this when nearly all preseason projections unanimously predicted something else?
According to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick the answer is simple: “Well, they've played good complementary football,” he said during a conference call on Tuesday. Belichick echoed those remarks during Wednesday's first press conference of the week: “The Jets are playing very well. This is three weeks in a row they've really gone out and played well in all three phases of the game.”
“They're young, they're hungry, they play a game that forces you to beat them. They don't make a lot of mistakes.” On Tuesday, Belichick was asked about what stood out from the Jets and he noted that they are “a good team” before digging deeper earlier today: “Offensively, Coach [John] Morton's done a good job of getting everybody involved in the offense. The tight ends have been productive. The backs have been productive. The receivers and quarterbacks are really playing well.”
“[Morton]'s gotten a lot out of everybody and they move it around, so you really can't just try to stop one guy because everybody gets involved. Everybody gets the ball and they've all been productive with it,” Belichick said. New England's head coach also praised quarterback Josh McCown for “playing extremely well, completing all of his passes” (actually, 71.4%, the second-best number in the NFL). “If you make a mistake he'll make you pay for it.”
“Defensively,” Belichick pointed out on Tuesday, “good team speed, athletic. They have some tough players to block up front and they have good speed in the back end.” During Wednesday's press conference, the head coach went into a bit more detail on what makes the Jets' defense tough to play from a schematic point of view: “They pressure, they don't pressure, they play zone, they play man. They have a real good third down package with a lot of different looks – odd, even, different blitz combinations, man, zone.”
Of course, it would not be a dissection of the opponent without Belichick talking about special teams – and as has been the case in the past, the coach went in-depth about returns, coverages and kicks. He did so on Tuesday and Wednesday and on both occasions praised New York for playing sound in the kicking game, no matter if it was returning, kicking or covering.
“Special teams – a couple of dangerous returners in [Jeremy] Kerley and [ArDarius] Stewart,” Belichick started off on Tuesday before shifting his focus on New York's coverage: “[T]heir usual strong coverage players – [Rontez] Miles, [Josh] Martin, [Julian] Stanford. [Terrence] Brooks has done a good job for them.” Belichick then went on to talk about the Jets' kickers.
“A couple of big legs with [Lac] Edwards and [Chandler] Catanzaro, long field goals, kickoffs, long punts.” New England's head coach, who famously filled the same role for the Jets for one day in January 2000, then focused on the team's punter: “Edwards has changed field position in the punting game several times this year. He did it to help them beat Jacksonville. He did it last week against Cleveland.”
Belichick speaking highly of New York's special teams units highlights not only the importance of the kicking game but also the need for the Patriots to be well-prepared in that area heading into their week six game. Luckily for New England's special teams, it projects to be at full strength for the second straight week. And as they have seen in the past (namely the two matchups in 2015 and 2016), special teams might very well be the difference – especially when playing against a well-balanced team like the Jets.
“We know what it's like to play the Jets in New York and we'll have to be at our best,” Belichick said on Wednesday. “[We have to] be ready for their good players and their schemes. They're a tough team to prepare for.” Preseason predictions be damned.