On paper, the New England Patriots should have no problems winning their 11th game of the season on Sunday and locking up at least a first-round bye for the postseason. Not only are the Patriots a perfect 7-0 at Gillette Stadium entering the regular season finale, the visiting 4-11 New York Jets are also the clear underdogs because of overall talent on the field and the sidelines, health, and general performance this season.
However, the team led by rookie quarterback Sam Darnold has shown some encouraging sign the last few weeks: the Jets held fourth quarter leads in each of their four games since last playing the Patriots, but they failed to close the deal in three of them. A few more late-game plays here and there and New York could have gone a perfect 4-0 since losing 27-13 against New England in late December.
Of course, a lot of games come down to a couple of plays and the championship teams are able to make them more often than not. The Jets, on the other hand, are not there yet — but they certainly should be capable of at least challenging the AFC East champions on Sunday. Here are five things to look for when the two division rivals face off.
1. Will the Patriots again have success on the ground?
The Patriots offense is having a very good season when it comes to attacking opponents with the running game, and last week’s game against the Buffalo Bills was the high-water mark so far this year: New England ran the football 45 times for 275 yards (before losing a couple again on kneel downs to end the contest) and was able to impose its will against a middle-of-the-pack run defense.
This week, a New York defense awaits that ranks in the bottom third in the league in every major run statistic and has given up a season-worst 215 yards on the ground the last time it faced the Patriots. Back in week 12, New England ran the football 35 times — with 21 of the carries coming from rookie Sony Michel — compared to just 31 passing drop backs, and dominated both the tempo of the game and the time of possession:
Sony Michel: 21 carries, 133 yards, 1 touchdown
James White: 9 carries, 73 yards
Cordarrelle Patterson: 5 carries, 10 yards
Given all of this, it would not be a surprise if New England again entered the game with a run-first game plan. Michel should play a big role once more, as James White and Cordarrelle Patterson — given that he is able to go after practicing only in limited capacity so far this week — are serving as the rotational change-of-pace runners. Rex Burkhead will also be back after missing the last game because of injury to give the team additional depth.
All in all, the Patriots are expected to try to attack New York on the ground once more.
2. How will Rob Gronkowski’s role look like?
Because of the Patriots likely using a heavy ground attack again on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski’s role might look similar to last week: he was primarily used a run blocker and saw only three targets in the passing game, with only one of which realistically catchable. Furthermore, the 29-year old appeared to be on a snap count as he came off the field in certain early down situations and was replaced by Dwayne Allen.
The last time the Patriots played the Jets, however, Gronkowski also was heavily involved in the passing game: playing 69 of 70 snaps and going against talented second-year safety Jamal Adams, he led the team in passing targets and saw seven balls thrown his way. On the day, the veteran registered three catches for 56 yards and a touchdown — one of Gronkowski’s better performances as a pass catcher this season.
Ultimately, it would not be a surprise if the Patriots used him in a similar way on Sunday: Gronkowski will play a big role as a road grader in the running game — he is, after all, arguably still the NFL’s best blocking tight end — but will likely see action off the play action game as well. The regular season finale might therefore be a more active game for him than last week’s contest.
3. Which strategy will the Patriots defense use to attack Sam Darnold?
When the Patriots traveled to New York in late November, Jets quarterback Sam Darnold was out because of a foot injury. In his place, Josh McCown was inserted into the starting lineup and played an inconsistent game against a good pass defense: the veteran completed 26 of 45 attempts for 276 yards with a touchdown and an interception registered by cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
On Sunday, McCown will be on the sidelines as the third overall pick of this year’s draft will try his luck against the Patriots: Sam Darnold. “Darnold has had some very high highs this year. As you would expect from a rookie, especially the youngest one ever, he’s gotten into a groove when things around him are working,” said Gang Green Nation’s Michael Nania ahead of the two teams’ last meeting.
Lately, things have worked well for Darnold: over the last two games, the 21-year old completed 65.8% of his passes for a combined 594 yards and five touchdowns. Most importantly, the rookie was able to limit his mistakes and did not turn the football over even once. Now, however, a different challenge awaits in a Patriots defense that has made life hard for passers this year — including fellow first-round rookie Josh Allen last week.
Allen, of course, is a different type of quarterback that relies more on his feet to extend plays than Darnold. There are still some aspects from last week’s game that the Patriots defense can use in two days, though: New England again used plenty of pre-snap motion and exotic looks with Trey Flowers serving as the lone down-lineman in order to challenge Allen’s ability to make the correct reads and quick decisions.
Even though Darnold is a superior quarterback at this point in their respective careers, the Patriots might also opt to throw various looks and coverages at the offense to make life hard both on him and the blockers up front — a group that surrendered two sacks in week twelve and overall is the 13th best in the NFL with a rate of 6.65%.
4. How will New England try to contain Andre Roberts?
The Jets’ as a whole have plenty of issues, hence their 4-11 record heading into the final week of the regular season. However, their special teams group is among the best in the NFL. Kicker Jason Myers has made 62 of 68 kicks this year (field goals plus extra points; 91.2%) while the return units are consistently stepping up as well: the blocking schemes drawn up by coordinator Brant Boyer play a big part in this but so does the elusiveness of one Mr. Andre Roberts.
Roberts, who only plays a marginal role as a wide receiver, is having an outstanding season as both a punt and a kickoff returner. When running back punts, the 30-year old is averaging 14.7 yards per return (324 yards on 22 runbacks) — the highest number in the NFL. When returning kickoffs, the veteran who was recently voted to his first Pro Bowl, he is gaining 29.3 yards per runback (1,115 yards on 38 attempts) — also the highest number in the NFL.
As a result of his productivity, Roberts has been listed as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded returnman of the season so far:
Andre Roberts is the highest graded returner in the NFL so far this season. pic.twitter.com/quOrRFtyDh— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 28, 2018
In week 12, the Patriots were able to limit his impact by not letting him touch the football on a regular basis. Punter Ryan Allen came onto the field four times and performed very well: two of his kicks went out of bounds and one came down as a touchback. As a result, Roberts was able to field just one punt all day long but New England’s coverage unit was quick to close in thanks to an impressive hang-time and tackle the returner after he had gained only one yard.
On kickoffs, Roberts was a bit more productive: he ran back a pair of kicks — one for 35 yards, one for 17 — but had to watch four of the footballs set in motion by Stephen Gostkowski’s right foot to sail over his head and into the end zone. Given that the journeyman returner has not slowed down in any way since last month, the Patriots will likely use a similar plan on Sunday: the football needs to be out of Roberts’ hands.
Last time the two teams’ met, it worked to near-perfection. And if the same happens again on Sunday, New England’s chances of winning the game should look good.
5. Will the Patriots be able to sustain and finish drives?
The Jets defense is rather pedestrian by most statistics but fares well in two areas: in the red zone and on third downs. For the Patriots, keeping drives alive and finishing them needs to be imperative on Sunday; and both those things worked inconsistently the last time the two squads squared off: New England’s offense went 5 of 12 (41.7%) on third down and converted just one of three red zone trips (33.3%) into touchdowns.
On the season, New York is giving up touchdowns on just 50% of red zone situations — the sixth best percentage in all of football. The team is faring even better when it comes to getting off the field as the Jets allow conversions just 33.2% of the time; second in the league behind the Minnesota Vikings’ 28.4%. For comparison, the Patriots’ success rates are 40.5% and 57.7%, respectively.
Safe to say that third down and red zone performance will again be one of the keys to the game.