Commentary

Jets on hot streak since last loss to Pats

Can New England avoid losing three straight to take the reins in AFC East race?

Updated: November 10, 2011, 10:05 PM ET
By Tedy Bruschi and Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Every week during the season, Mike Reiss and Tedy Bruschi break down the New England Patriots' upcoming game. This week's breakdown is on Sunday night's road game at the New York Jets.

Mike: I don't think there is any question which team is playing better right now. It's the Jets. They measure up well in most of the key areas. They are plus-4 in turnover differential, and are generally solid at the situational football that has been a Patriots trademark: The Jets are efficient in the red zone and solid on third down, while proving to be a mentally tough team. Some were writing them off after a 30-21 loss to the Patriots on Oct. 9, but they've won three straight since then and have gained confidence along the way.

Tedy: Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is playing better football. Defensively, they are coming along. On special teams, Joe McKnight is a weapon and someone whom you really have to account for. All three phases of their team are playing well. The Jets have momentum, and now they have this game at home on Sunday night. It's a good position to be in after some early struggles this year when they were 2-3.

Mike: As for the Patriots, the back-to-back losses have some asking the question, "How good are they?"

Tedy: I still think they're legitimate and the one point I come back to is that the real season starts after Thanksgiving. Personnel-wise, things have been jumbled together a little bit here and it could be that way leading into the holidays. But it's not until then that teams start to separate themselves.

Mike: One thing that has stood out to me over the last two weeks is general negativity, from a media standpoint, around the Patriots. I spoke with a few players in the locker room leading up to the New York Giants game and they felt it too. When there is a loss, the tone of questions really turns. How tough can that be as a player to deal with?

Tedy: It's tough to do, especially in a place like New England because there is a lot of passionate fans and media who are all over you, telling you how bad you are. Sometimes you'll get it from coach Bill Belichick, too, so it's coming from all areas. Mental toughness really comes in, and you have to treat it like you're out there to prove people wrong again. How often have a lot of these players had a lot of this adversity? The Patriots haven't had too many two-game losing streaks. This is a test on them to see how they respond.

Patriots defense vs. Jets offense

Mike: Let's start with the big transaction of the week for the Patriots, the release of defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth. I predicted he'd do big things in New England. Like others, I was wrong.

Tedy: It's a huge disappointment. Everyone thought that he would breathe new life into his career coming to New England, being part of a winning organization with a solid locker room and coaching staff. It gave him a great chance to succeed, but it never worked out. Injuries limited his time on the practice field, and he wasn't getting a lot of reps in the defensive-line rotation. When he was in the rotation, he was inconsistent. We can talk about the holding penalties he drew, but still, the Pats needed more from him. He was a low-risk signing, but it's still very disappointing.

Mike: Overall, it shouldn't hurt the Patriots too much. Haynesworth was a backup defensive tackle in the 4-3 and did create some push as a sub rusher, but he played only 133 of 561 snaps (including penalties). I didn't sense that players in the locker room were too disappointed. I got the feeling Haynesworth just didn't fit in here and his comments to Tampa media about wanting to play more paint a picture of a player who was more concerned with his own role than the team's success. Veteran Gerard Warren, second-year player Brandon Deaderick and third-year man Ron Brace are the candidates to take over that role. Really, the Patriots have bigger issues than Haynesworth.

Tedy: The Jets' offense presents some challenges, and one thing that stands out since the Oct. 9 game between the teams is the play calling of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. They are executing better but I really think he's been the difference. They've done some creative things in the running game, with motions and misdirection and scheme runs. You still have your staples when you think of the Jets' offense: the bootlegs, the slants, those quick passes in between the numbers that Sanchez loves to complete off play-action. You also have to be aware of "logo shots." Once they reach the middle of the field, and they're on that logo in the middle of their field, that's when they want to take shots. That mix by Schottenheimer has looked great. They've mixed it up and kept defenses off balance. The players are executing it well, so it's a formidable offense.

Mike: Tight end Dustin Keller leads the Jets with 29 receptions for 436 yards and he always draws a lot of attention from the Patriots. There have been games where he's really hurt the Patriots -- eight catches for 87 yards in 2008 and seven catches for 115 yards and a touchdown in 2010. But in the early-season meeting this year, Keller was held to one catch and the Pats got physical with him at the line of scrimmage.

[+] EnlargeDustin Keller
William Perlman/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireWill Jets TE Dustin Keller be able to exploit the Patriots in the middle of the field?
Tedy: This matchup is very important, especially in the middle of the field, where I feel the Patriots' defense is at its weakest. We saw Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller and Giants tight end Jake Ballard do damage in that area over the past two weeks. This is a copycat league and you're seeing a little bit of a trend where coaches are saying, "Let's not do our own thing, but duplicate what others have done to be successful against the Patriots."

Mike: Among the areas of concern for the Patriots is at linebacker, where Brandon Spikes isn't expected to play (MCL injury) and backup Dane Fletcher (thumb) is likely to remain out. They should enter with Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton and Rob Ninkovich, with career special-teamer Tracy White, rookie free agent Jeff Tarpinian and emergency signing Niko Koutouvides as backups. We saw White in coverage on the game-winning touchdown last week against the Giants.

Tedy: You look at that, and consider the Jets are a tough running team, and it's not a good week to be thin there. Shonn Greene is that downhill type of running back who can pound it in there between the tackles, and LaDainian Tomlinson has also been looking good hitting it on the edges, with off-tackle runs. So Spikes is a huge loss if he doesn't play because he's one of New England's best run-stuffers, making plays with that size and strength he has.

Mike: A couple of other things we should note: It's always a matchup to watch when Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork goes up against Jets center Nick Mangold. There is a lot of mutual respect between the two top players. Also, the Patriots have big questions at safety, where starter Patrick Chung has missed practices Wednesday and Thursday with a foot injury, potentially leaving James Ihedigbo, Sergio Brown and Sterling Moore atop the depth chart. That is really thin. And we haven't mentioned the challenge of facing the Jets' receivers, Santonio Holmes (25 catches, 340 yards, 4 TDs) and Plaxico Burress (23 catches, 322 yards, 5 TDs). I know how highly you think of Holmes as a threat with the ball in his hands.

Tedy: Burress and Holmes, those types of players, they come to play in prime-time games. There's a mindset of "Put the camera on me, let me do my thing." It's Sunday night, prime time, you can be sure they'll be ready to go.

Patriots offense vs. Jets defense

Mike: There are not a lot of mysteries here. We know the personnel, having dissected it just one month ago, and Rex Ryan-led defenses warrant respect.

Tedy: The Jets have a lot of good players. The schemes will be numerous in terms of what Ryan brings at the Patriots' offense. Will they be zone-based or man-based? They're shown so many different looks. Because of that, sideline adjustments are going to be crucial.

Mike: In the Oct. 9 meeting, the Patriots ran the ball right down the Jets' throat to end the game. It was almost as if they grounded-and-pounded the "original" ground-and-pound team. Can they do it again?

Tedy: I think that still should be a focus going up against a Jets defense giving up 123 rushing yards per game (22nd in NFL). We could see a little more of rookie Stevan Ridley, but certainly, a steady dose of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You have to attack the Jets' defense with the running game. It can simplify a lot of things when you are getting 4 yards on first down, another 4 yards on second down, to get into short-yardage situations on third down against a complex defensive scheme. So I can see the Pats really trying to establish the run.

Mike: Of course, Tom Brady will be throwing it -- Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski have been the top targets -- and you have an interesting theory when it comes to Chad Ochocinco.

[+] EnlargeTBD
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTedy Bruschi says that Chad Ochocinco is the key to the Patriots' offense, and needs to start making some plays.
Tedy: This is very ironic. Ochocinco has been a hot topic of conversation all year, with everyone watching his development with Brady and it just hasn't happened. At this point of the season, the midpoint, they're still working at it and they're still giving him quality reps. There are ways for a defense to take away Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski, so that third guy is crucial in the success of this team. I'm starting to think this team's success down the line is going to depend on the development of Ochocinco. I truly believe that. If he starts producing, getting the ball in the end zone, and ends up proving to be that mid-to-deep type threat, the Patriots will do well. If he does not, they will fail. They need that production from the third spot and they seem committed to getting him going. He must turn that handful of incompletions a game into productive gains for the offense. Five incompletions last week equals five wasted downs. As the season progresses, every down is crucial.

Mike: Ochocinco has just nine catches for 136 yards this season, but it was interesting to hear the different points of view of his progress in Sunday's loss to the Giants. He was targeted five times and didn't have a catch, in part because of Brady's lack of accuracy.

Tedy: Brady had an off day and Ochocinco is still struggling to find the right places on the field, to be in the right spots for his quarterback. So you had two players not on the same page and it looks bad. The way I look at it, the five targets to Ochocinco mean five fewer opportunities for Welker, Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez having the ball thrown to them when they are in the right spots, and their chances of making the catch are higher. However, those balls will continue to be thrown at Ochocinco. The Pats have said it. They know he has to get better and they're going to work this guy. Until he starts producing, and catching the ball and being in the right place -- deeper patterns that really threaten a defense -- this offense isn't going to go because they need that third target.

Mike: Part of the reason they need that is Deion Branch has been up and down. He opened the year with 15 catches over the first two games and has 17 over the past six games. In this matchup, all eyes will also be on how the Jets plan to attack Welker.

Tedy: There won't be one person that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis is on for the entire game. He could be on Ochocinco, Welker, Branch; the Jets will move him around. That's what they've done in the past. I think that's part of the Patriots' sideline adjustments -- finding out whom Revis is covering on a consistent basis and then attacking accordingly. I don't know how much you want to attack Revis. I know Welker hit him deep in the first game with the shallow cross that he turned up deep when the safety bit. This is the best corner in the game, hands down. You gotta carefully choose your spots.

Mike: The final piece to the puzzle is on special teams. The Jets are strong in this area and the Patriots have been disappointing. Bill Belichick has made some roster moves in this area -- we could see receiver Tiquan Underwood as a kickoff returner -- so it wouldn't be right to overlook it.

Tedy: The Patriots' offense has been struggling a bit at times, and one of the things that can really provide a boost is when your return units are able to positively shift field position. The Pats could use some help in that area. The Jets have Joe McKnight, who is dangerous in the kickoff return game (88-yarder against the Patriots on Oct. 9), and receiver Jeremy Kerley, who can be elusive on punt returns.

Mike: Prediction time. This looks like a bad spot for the Patriots, who are going on the road on a two-game losing skid to play the improving Jets in prime time. I think the Jets have been the better team in recent weeks, but I don't think all the gloom and doom around the Patriots is reflective of a team that won't show up. I expect the Patriots' best effort and could envision a scenario where Tom Brady will play his best game of the season, the defense will rise up in the red zone again, and special teams will tighten up. I like the Jets' mental toughness, but I also like the Patriots in that area. I think they get rewarded this week for hanging tough in tough times. Patriots 27, Jets 23.

Tedy: You hit it on the head, Reiss! The question is, do you believe that the Patriots have enough mental toughness to end a two-game losing streak by beating a tough New York Jets team on the road? Your answer is yes and so is mine. This will be a dogfight and the Patriots will take an us-against-the-world mentality into the Meadowlands and win. Patriots 21, Jets 20.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th anniversary team. Mike Reiss is the Patriots blogger for ESPNBoston.com. You can reach Mike by leaving a message in his mailbag.

Tedy Bruschi

Columnist, ESPN.com
Tedy Bruschi spent his entire 13-year career with the New England Patriots after being drafted in the third round out of Arizona. He played in five Super Bowls, winning three. He retired prior to the 2009 season.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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