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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
W2W4: Jets vs. Patriots

By Rich Cimini

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Jets. Patriots. Thanksgiving night. Does it get better than that?

Well, yeah, it would be more dramatic if the Jets (4-6) were vying for the division lead instead of fighting for survival, but there's something about a desperate team, facing its nemesis, that makes for good theater. The Jets can jump-start their season with an upset over the Patriots (7-3), who have won four straight.

Kickoff is 8:20 p.m. at MetLife Stadium. What to watch for:

1. The strip tease: The Jets need to keep both hands on the ball. This sounds pretty basic, but it's an absolute must for the Jets -- especially QB Mark Sanchez, who has nine fumbles (four lost). He tends to be careless with the ball, and he can't do that against the Patriots, masters of the strip sack. The Patriots have 24 forced fumbles, including three strip sacks apiece for rookie DE Chandler Jones and DE Rob Ninkovich, whom Bill Belichick calls a "Jet killer."

In Week 7, Ninkovich beat RT Austin Howard for a strip sack in overtime, giving the Patriots a walk-off win. The Jets can't afford to give away possessions to the Patriots, who lead the league with a plus-20 turnover margin. Lose the turnover battle against the Patriots and you have almost no shot.

2. Sanchez vs. four-man rushes. The Patriots aren't a big blitzing team, and that bodes well for Sanchez and the Jets, who tend to struggle when opponents bring extra rushers. Most of Sanchez's best games have come against defenses that employ a bend-but-don't-break style -- and the Patriots are definitely one of those teams. They've sent 5-plus rushers on only 18 percent of the opponents' dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Sanchez has passed for at least 300 yards in his past two games against the Patriots, the only team he has had multiple 300-yard games against. The Patriots are 30th in pass defense (289 yards per game), but their secondary is in better shape than in the previous meeting. S Steve Gregory is back from an injury; S Devin McCourty has adjusted to his position change; and recently acquired CB Aqib Talib brings playmaking ability. Talib scored on an interception return this past week, but he also got burned for a TD on a double move.

3. Rex vs. the Machine: Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine usually come up with a good plan for QB Tom Brady, whom Ryan referred to as "a machine." The key is to disrupt Brady's timing, forcing him to hold the ball. They can do that with pressure or coverage. In the last meeting, the Jets sent extra pressure on only seven pass attempts, and they got burned for two TDs, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The Jets catch a break because TE Rob Gronkowski (broken arm) is out. That could have a dramatic impact on Brady's play-action passing and his efficiency in the red zone. Over the past two years, he's 20-for-30 when throwing to Gronk inside the 20; he's only 14-for-49 when throwing to others. Get the picture?

4. Calling all corners: Without Gronkowski, and with TE Aaron Hernandez (ankle) still less than 100 percent, the Patriots are likely to employ more three-receiver packages than usual. In recent weeks, they had been trending toward that anyway, with WR Julian Edelman seeing more playing time.

That could be problematic for the Jets, who have only three healthy corners. The fourth, Aaron Berry (quadriceps), will play, but he has no game experience in the system. Look for them to use bracket coverage on WR Wes Welker, with nickelback Ellis Lankster heavily involved in the Welker plan.

5. Keep it clean: The Jets must avoid game-changing mistakes -- blocked field goals, communication breakdowns in the secondary, third-down penalties, blown assignments in pass protection and, of course, dropped passes. (Paying attention, Stephen Hill?) They did a good job last week, playing a turnover-free game, but this goes beyond ball security. To beat the Patriots, you have to be smart. That goes for players and coaches.