Hype aside, 'new season' starts Sunday

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A Patriots-Jets matchup needs no hype, especially this week. Division rivals. Matching records. The national spotlight of "Sunday Night Football." As Jet-turned-Patriot James Ihedigbo quipped this week, the story writes itself.

True. But understand there's no attempt at hyperbole when we note that, for New England, Sunday's AFC East blockbuster at MetLife Stadium is the most important game remaining on its 2011 schedule.

We know what you're thinking: Tell us something we don't know, Mr. Sportswriter. If we took a poll in April when the 2011 schedule was released, 99 percent of Patriots and Jets fans probably would have guessed that.

But here's the thing: All the hoopla aside, the outcome of Sunday's game will likely go a long way toward determining the overall success of the season for the Patriots.

Consider this: The Jets are one of only two teams remaining on New England's schedule that boasts a record above .500 (the other is the Buffalo Bills, who could be another pivotal division matchup for the Patriots, but a lot can happen between now and Week 17).

After the Jets, New England's next seven opponents boast a mere 19 wins between them, good for a .333 winning percentage. It's the easiest remaining slate in the NFL.

So it's this simple: If the Patriots win Sunday -- sweeping the season series against the Jets -- they'll essentially have a two-game cushion on their chief rivals with a breezy path to January football. It would force the Bills to essentially maintain pace the rest of the way in order to take advantage of having won that first meeting of the season.

A loss? Well, that's far more daunting. Suddenly the Patriots would have lost three in a row and would find themselves in a dogfight the rest of the way, with the potential to be left scrapping for a mere wild-card spot (though that soft schedule would certainly aid that quest).

"It's a really big game," wide receiver Wes Welker said with an I'm-not-just-saying-this-because-it's-Patriots-Jets-week tone. "Any time you're going for first in the division, trying to do the things necessary to win and put ourselves in good position, this is where you want to be."

With eyes toward putting the back-to-back losses behind them, the Patriots have taken a "new season" approach to this week. The idea being that, with the logjam atop the division and eight games to go, what's happened before now really doesn't matter.

But make no mistake. What happens Sunday sure does. Sometimes the Patriots-Jets hype can overshadow the game. Not this time around. In a week in which both teams have again kept the bulletin board material to a minimum, the hullabaloo is relegated to the gridiron, where it most certainly belongs.

"There's nothing to downplay," Ihedigbo said. "Two 5-3 teams, rivals in the same division, fighting for the same thing. There's nothing to downplay. You definitely embrace it, embrace the challenge in front of us. In order to win games like this, you have to play your best football."

No team in the NFL has been better in division games in November or later in recent years than the Patriots. Since the start of the 2003 season, the Patriots are 24-7 against division rivals (a .744 winning percentage).

The Patriots are 16-7 overall against the Jets in the Tom Brady era (including the game in which he replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2001). The teams have split the season series each of the past three seasons, with the Jets winning the past two at home.

As for the national spotlight, New England is 5-5 since NBC took over "Sunday Night Football" broadcasts, but they won both prime-time appearances last season, against the Green Bay Packers (31-27 on Dec. 19, 2010) and Pittsburgh Steelers (39-26 on Nov. 14, 2010). This is the first of consecutive national telecasts, with a Monday night visit from the Kansas City Chiefs looming next week.

But New England's focus is clearly on the Jets.

"Every single week we're practicing hard ... but this is definitely a big game," said tight end Rob Gronkowski. "On the road, 'Sunday Night Football' -- it can't get any bigger. We can't wait for this game. It's going to be a lot of fun."

But it'll only be fun for Gronkowski & Co. if the result is a victory. After all, nothing feels quite as good to the folks in Foxborough as a win during Jets week. Earlier this season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had a certain glow about him after the Jets game (lingering at the podium when he'd otherwise be watching film).

What's more, over the past few weeks, it's been hard to not to notice all the plastic-wrapped commemorative balls inside numerous Patriots players' locker stalls. They bear the logo of the Jets, suggesting the team might have given the entire squad game balls on the heels of a 30-21 triumph in Week 5.

Will there be another large order for game balls next week? The Patriots will need to snap their two-game skid, a rare losing streak in these parts (only the third time during the regular season since the start of the 2003 campaign).

When it was suggested that the familiarity with the Jets might make them the perfect opponent to try to bounce back against, Vince Wilfork smiled and noted the difficulty in that.

"It's vice versa: They know us also," he said. "Two division teams that are tough teams and two coaches that are just hard, hard working coaches -- you're going to have a good football game come Sunday."

A good football game that might actually be bigger than the Wilfork-sized hype.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.