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NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Jets (12-5) at New England (14-2)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The chance to earn back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history should be motivation enough, but the New York Jets will be entering Sunday's Divisional Playoff with the New England Patriots with a little additional incentive.
It was no contest when these two bitter rivals last squared off at New England's Gillette Stadium, with the division-champion Patriots dealing their fellow AFC East members a stunning 45-3 defeat on Dec. 6. The loss was the Jets' most lopsided in 24 years, dating back to a blowout at Miami by the same score on Nov. 24, 1986.
That victory was also part of an incredible tear of eight straight wins to close out the regular season for New England, which garnered the top overall seed for the AFC tournament and a bye for last weekend's Wild Card Round. The Patriots have beaten five 2010 postseason participants during the streak and scored at least 31 points in every game over that stretch.
The Jets, on the other hand, lost three times in a four-game span beginning with that Week 13 fiasco, but have since righted the ship. Gang Green tuned up for the playoffs with a 38-7 trouncing of Buffalo, then outlasted reigning AFC title-holder Indianapolis in a 17-16 squeaker in the opening round to advance as a sixth seed.
The recent surge appears to have given the brash Jets their trademark swagger back. The club produced plenty of headline material for the Gotham tabloids in the days leading up to Sunday's showdown, with head coach Rex Ryan terming the game "personal" between he and counterpart Bill Belichick and cornerback Antonio Cromartie declaring his disdain for Pats quarterback Tom Brady in an expletive-filled tirade.
New York backed up its words last week, keeping Peyton Manning and a dangerous Colts' offense at bay with a sound defensive strategy and a potent ground game that churned out 169 rushing yards, 95 of which came in the second half. Young quarterback Mark Sanchez shook off some early struggles to skillfully lead a late drive capped by kicker Nick Folk's go-ahead 32-yard field goal as time expired.
The Jets held Indianapolis to a modest 312 total yards and kept Manning and his charges out of the end zone over the final two quarters, but face a greater challenge on Sunday from the high-powered and precise Patriots, who amassed a league-best 518 points over the course of the 16-game schedule.
New England has averaged 37.4 points per game during its unbeaten run and committed only a single turnover in those eight outings. Brady hasn't thrown an interception in the team's last 11 tests and enters Sunday's matchup riding an NFL-record run of 335 consecutive pass attempts without a pick.
Brady carved up the Jets for 326 yards and four touchdowns on 21-of-29 passing in the Week 13 rout, but the leading MVP candidate was intercepted twice in a 28-14 loss to New York at the Meadowlands in early September.
The star signal-caller also owns a stellar 8-1 career playoff record at home, though that lone blemish did take place via a 33-14 loss to Baltimore in last year's Wild Card Round. That setback is also the Patriots' only one in their last 32 tilts at Gillette Stadium when Brady has been under center.
The Jets have their own strong track record in road games, however, having gone 14-6 as the visitor in Ryan's two-year tenure. That includes a trio of wins in postseason play.
These longtime foes have only faced one another twice in postseason play, with New England winning both bouts. The Patriots registered a 26-14 road victory over New York in a 1985 First-Round Playoff and came through with a 37-16 triumph at Gillette Stadium in a 2006 opening-round tilt.
The Jets hold a slim 51-49-1 edge in the all-time regular-season set between the clubs following this year's series split. However, the Pats have come out on top in seven of their last nine meetings with New York held in Foxborough, with the Jets' most recent positive result a 34-31 overtime decision in 2008.
Belichick has a career record of 16-9 against the Jets, for whom he served as defensive coordinator from 1997 through 1999, and sports a stellar 15-5 postseason mark (14-4 with New England) that includes three Super Bowl titles.
Ryan improved to 3-1 in the playoffs as a head coach with last Sunday's win and is 2-2 against both Belichick and the Patriots since taking his present position in 2009.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
The Jets' best opportunity to prevail on Sunday is to keep the ball out of Brady's hands, so count on the tandem of running backs LaDainian Tomlinson (914 rushing yards, 6 TD, 52 receptions) and Shonn Greene (766 rushing yards, 2 TD, 16 receptions) being utilized early and often. The pair combined for 152 rushing yards on 35 carries against the Colts last week, with Tomlinson scoring both New York touchdowns. The Jets will also need to protect the ball to have a chance, and some sort of contribution from the unpredictable Sanchez (3291 passing yards, 17 TD, 13 INT) and the passing game is a must as well. The second-year triggerman was terrific in New York's Week 2 win over the Pats, hitting on 21-of-30 throws for 220 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, but was picked off three times in the early-December disaster in Foxborough. Wide receivers Braylon Edwards (53 receptions, 7 TD) and Santonio Holmes (52 receivers, 6 TD) provide Sanchez with two capable outside targets, while tight end Dustin Keller (55 receptions, 5 TD) had a career-high 115 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven catches in the early-season victory over New England. The Jets field one of the league's better offensive lines, but the group is weakened somewhat by this week's placing of veteran right tackle Damien Woody (torn Achilles') on injured reserve.
Sanchez will need to be judicious in his decision-making, as the Patriots possess a very opportunistic defense that topped the NFL in interceptions (25) and compiled 38 takeaways during the regular season, the second-highest number in the league. New England has forced at least two turnovers in seven straight games, with rookie cornerback Devin McCourty (82 tackles, 17 PD) garnering five of his team-best seven interceptions over that span, and Belichick has gotten a total of nine picks of his three-safety rotation of Pat Chung (96 tackles, 3 INT), Brandon Meriweather (68 tackles, 3 INT) and James Sanders (58 tackles, 3 INT). Though the Pats have surrendered the third-most passing yards (258.5 ypg) this season, they've also held four of their last five opponents to seven points or less. The Jets did rush for over 135 yards in both meetings between the foes, however, so it's imperative that the Pro Bowl-bound combo of inside linebacker Jerod Mayo (175 tackles, 2 sacks) and nose tackle Vince Wilfork (57 tackles, 2 sacks) effectively clog the lanes and prevent the backs from finding daylight. Those two should get help from rookie linebacker Brandon Spikes (61 tackles, 1 INT), a strong stopper who's now back from a four-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancer. With sack leader Mike Wright (14 tackles, 5.5 sacks) on injured reserve due to lingering concussion symptoms, outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain (45 tackles, 5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (62 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) will be in charge of applying heat to Sanchez.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England has been virtually unstoppable over the season's second half primarily because Brady (3900 passing yards, 36 TD, 4 INT) has been just about flawless in directing the league's highest-scoring offense. The three-time Super Bowl champion has completed a crisp 65.9 percent of his throws and been intercepted a mere four times, none since a narrow Week 6 win over Baltimore. A deep collection of pass-catchers has also made the Patriots difficult to defend, and the team can run the ball as well, with bruiser BenJarvus Green- Ellis (1008 rushing yards, 13 TD) and shifty ex-Jet Danny Woodhead (547 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 6 total TD) forming a quality inside-outside duo. Standout slotman Wes Welker (86 receptions, 7 TD) remains Brady's go-to guy in the passing game, but the veteran quarterback has plenty of other options on hand as well. Wide receiver Deion Branch (61 receptions, 6 TD) has put together a resurgent season after being re-acquired from Seattle in October, while the rookie tight-end pairing of Rob Gronkowski (42 receptions, 10 TD) and Aaron Hernandez (45 receptions, 6 TD) have quickly emerged into key weapons, particularly within the red zone. The Jets will also need to pay attention to Woodhead, who burned his former mates for a career-best 104 receiving yards on just four catches back in Week 13.
A New York stop unit that limited enemy quarterbacks to a league-low 50.7 percent completion rate during the regular season won't make it easy on Brady, and Ryan has the ability to take one of the Patriots receivers entirely out of the game plan by assigning cornerback Darrelle Revis (32 tackles, 10 PD) that player's way. The shutdown coverman neutralized the Colts' Reggie Wayne a week ago, with the All-Pro wideout managing only one catch for one yard. Cromartie (42 tackles, 3 INT, 17 PD) can hold his own on the opposite side, but nickel defenders such as Drew Coleman (41 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) and Dwight Lowery (19 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) will need to be on top of their games as well in order to contain New England's aerial assault. Expect Ryan to bring pressure from all angles in an attempt to contain Brady, who was sacked three times in the teams' most recent meeting, as 11 of the Jets' 40 sacks this year have come from the secondary. Running the ball can be a chore against a front seven anchored by inside linebackers David Harris (99 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bart Scott (81 tackles, 1 sacks), with New York yielding scant averages of 90.9 rushing yards per game (3rd overall) and 3.6 yards per attempt this year.
Both clubs sport explosive kick returners that could make an impact on Sunday, as the Jets' Brad Smith finished second in the NFL with an average of 28.6 yards per runback and New England's Brandon Tate (25.6 avg.) placed sixth overall in that category. Each also took a pair of kicks back for touchdowns. Smith injured his groin during last week's Wild Card game, though Ryan expects to have him available.
The Patriots also have a top-notch punt returner in their arsenal, with reserve receiver Julian Edelman averaging an AFC-best 15.3 yards per attempt and delivering a team-record 94-yard touchdown against Miami in the regular-season finale. Kicker Shayne Graham made good on all 12 of his field goal tries since replacing an injured Stephen Gostkowski at midseason, though the former Bengal did misfire on two extra points. Rookie Zoltan Mesko turned in a decent debut as New England's punter, averaging 43.2 yards per kick and showing good leg strength.
Folk was the Jets' hero last week, but he's been rather shaky over the course of the season, converting just 30-of-39 field goal attempts prior to the playoffs and posting a lackluster 68.4 percent (13-of-19) success rate on the road. New York is in better shape at the punter position, where Steve Weatherford (42.6 avg.) led the NFL in kicks placed inside both the 20-yard line (42) and the 10-yard line (20). Punt returns have been mainly handled by third receiver Jerricho Cotchery (9.0 avg.) after the team lost the valuable Jim Leonhard (11.9 avg.) to a season-ending broken leg in early December.
The Jets are clearly better than what they showed in their last visit to Foxborough, and if they're able to display the same defensive discipline and ran the ball with equal authority as they did last week, an upset isn't entirely out of the question. The key for New York is not to fall behind early and be forced to have to alter its offensive approach by putting the game on Sanchez's shoulders. Problem is, the Jets produced a meager 36 first-quarter points during the regular season, while the Patriots outscored their foes by a whopping 103-39 margin in the opening period. Add in the extra preparation time New England will have going in -- a distinct advantage for Belichick-coached teams in the past -- along with the extra enticement that the Jets have provided with their pregame antics -- and it's hard not to like New England here. The only mystery may be whether the Jets are dealt a slow death or a quick demise, depending on how aggressive Ryan chooses to play it.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Jets 17
01/13 14:12:09 ET
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