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Thursday, January 13, 2011
Updated: January 14, 8:25 AM ET
Heat turned way up for rivalry game

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 focuses on the AFC divisional-round playoff game against the New York Jets on Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET):

Mike: It certainly hasn't been dull this week. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie's comments about Tom Brady stole headlines, so let's start there. What did you think of that?

Tedy: I'm not surprised. This Jets team is following the lead of its head coach. The Patriots will keep their mouths shut until game time. This game is going to have a lot of trash talking from both teams. Believe me, the Patriots can trash talk on the field with the best of them.

Mike: One other aspect that I think is important to touch on is the Patriots' youth. You never know how young players will respond in the pressure situations in the playoffs, and the Jets have the more experienced roster.

Rob Gronkowski
Will rookies such as Rob Gronkowski continue their success this season on Sunday?

Tedy: The kids on this team, in their first playoff experience, will they think that they need to do more? Do they think that it's the playoffs now and if they don't make a huge play, they won't win, so they have to try something that they didn't try before? I always learned from my own playoff experience that you get all the hype, all the buildup, and you walk into the locker room and the media is there. But once you get to the game, you have to remember to do what got you there. It's another football game, so just focus on doing your job.

Mike: Before getting deeper into the breakdown of the game, we usually hit on one technical aspect of football. One of the things that ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer mentioned was how the Patriots threw so many different formations at the Jets on Dec. 6. How does that work and how can that be effective?

Tedy: The more complex you are on defense, the more adjustments you have to make. Multiple personnel groupings and formations can take the aggressiveness out of a defense that has a high adjustment level.

Patriots' defense vs. Jets' offense

Mike: The big question I have is what will the front seven look like for the Patriots and will it be strong enough against the run? We know Vince Wilfork and Gerard Warren will be on the line, but who's the third option? It will probably be rookie free agent Kyle Love. I'll also be looking to see how Brandon Spikes' return from suspension goes, as well as the injury status of outside linebackers Jermaine Cunningham (calf) and Tully Banta-Cain (groin). There could be some significant changes in the front seven.

Tedy: Looking at the Jets, I thought they got away from who they were in the last meeting between the teams. They have to get back to running the ball consistently. They had come out in a no-huddle type offense with Mark Sanchez in the shotgun. You could tell the offensive line didn't look right. So I think it will start with, "Can they run the ball?"

Mike: That seems to be what the Patriots are anticipating, as well. Starting outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich said, "That's the biggest thing about this week: having a tough attitude towards the run."

Tedy: Answer this question: Are Jets coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer stupid? If you think they are, they'll do the same thing they did that Monday night game. If you think they aren't, they'll change their approach from the Monday night game and challenge the Patriots by going back to who they are -- ground-and-pound. That's what I think will happen.

LaDanian Tomlinson
The Patriots will need to contain LaDanian Tomlinson, who will be ready to go Sunday.

Mike: With that comes a focus on running backs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson. I know you've been impressed with Tomlinson, which hasn't always been the case.

Tedy: It looks like he has hit the fountain of youth. He might have sputtered a bit toward the end of the year, but come playoff time, he was big against the Colts. He wants a championship badly. I think that's what he feels he needs to complete his career. In the playoffs, he never performed well when it came down to it. It looks like he's turned that around, based on that performance against the Colts. He will be ready to go.

Mike: When Bill Belichick was breaking down the Jets' offense, you could quickly tell how much he respects center Nick Mangold, saying that's where the strength of the running game is generated. Like you, Tedy, I anticipate the Jets leaning more on that offensive line group -- which will have Wayne Hunter in at right tackle for the injured Damien Woody -- and running more in this game.

Tedy: Another thing the Jets have to do is get tight end Dustin Keller more involved. Keller was targeted nine times in the first meeting between the Patriots and Jets, and then just four in the second meeting. It was almost like they forgot they had him. Do they get back to that? We'll see.

Mike: I remember the Patriots talking a lot about being more physical with Keller the second time around. No free releases at the line of scrimmage. What do you see from the Jets receiving corps -- Jerricho Cotchery, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards?

Tedy: Thinking back to the Monday night game, I didn't think they were ready to play. But it seems like they've flipped the switch to playoff-mode football. You get that sometimes with veteran players. If I were to describe these Jets receivers in a nutshell, it would be to be aware of yards after the catch. Once they get the ball on those slant routes, the quick throws from Sanchez, they are strong enough to break tackles and turn a short gain into a big gain. Edwards was big in the first matchup versus the Patriots, and then you look at the play he made last week against he Colts -- jumping up and getting that back-shoulder fade -- it was great execution. It seems like they have a little momentum coming into this.

Mike: Quarterback Mark Sanchez is someone we've talked about quite a bit this year. What do you see from him now?

Tedy: It seems like he settles down when it comes to a playoff atmosphere. Schottenheimer, the offensive coordinator, does a good job making him comfortable. Sanchez is probably best described as a game manager right now. Can he progress into something else? I don't know right now, but I know he manages it well and he has the leadership that teammates look to him for. He's best at those safe throws -- the slants inside the numbers, the in-cuts. In that Monday night game, the Jets seemed to be doing things to try to make the Patriots' defense adjust but they confused Sanchez while trying to do so. If they try something like that again, they should use Brad Smith, if he's healthy. He's an X-factor, a former college quarterback from the Wildcat formation.

Mike: On the Patriots' side, you played the inside linebacker spot and that's where Spikes returns to the lineup Sunday after his four-game suspension.

Tedy: If the Patriots were playing more of a passing team, I don't think his return would be a big issue because he's mainly a first- and second-down player. He will most likely be used in this game, and the improvement he had shown from his first game to his last game -- against the Jets before he got suspended -- I felt it was significant. Has he regressed since the suspension? That will be something to watch because it could hurt the Patriots.

Patriots' offense vs. Jets' defense

Mike: Rex Ryan made the point that the Jets' defensive plan was too complex on Dec. 6.

Tedy: It might have been too complex because they lost a major cog the Friday before that game in safety Jim Leonhard. The loss of Leonhard was huge in that game. You bring in Eric Smith, who didn't get a lot of reps that week, and that's very difficult to do. He didn't look prepared and there were plays in which he was rushing and dropping out, and he didn't have his eyes in the proper places -- specifically on the quick slant touchdown pass to Deion Branch. He looked out of sorts there. But now he knows he's the guy, so he should be more comfortable.

Mike: This looks like a situation in which less could be more for the Jets' defense. I still think they have some unfavorable matchups in the middle of the field, but when I look at the strength of the defense, I start at cornerback.

Darrelle Revis
Darrelle Revis will be a factor for the Patriots against the Jets.

Tedy: If I'm Rex Ryan, this is a moment to say, "This is why I brought all these big-name players in here." You traded for Antonio Cromartie, you got the contract situation squared away with Darrelle Revis. I anticipate him letting his money-makers do what they do, letting them cover and not having them match up against certain formations. So it's simple: "You have to cover him; we're blitzing, that's what you have to do, so go do it."

Mike: When looking at this Jets defense, there aren't a lot of changes from the Dec. 6 game. One of the first questions I ask is how the Jets plan to use Revis. Patriots receiver Wes Welker said that when the Jets played man coverage on Dec. 6, Revis most often covered him. Welker finished with seven catches for 70 yards and one touchdown, although most of his production came against zone coverage.

Tedy: A lot of quarterbacks see Revis -- like Peyton Manning did last week with Reggie Wayne being covered by Revis -- and they go to a different matchup. Revis is a great corner. You look at his stats and he had 10 pass breakups and no interceptions this year, but I think that comes down to respect. Everyone knows the skill he has.

Mike: When looking back at the Dec. 6 game, this statistic stands out to me from the Patriots' offense: 29 pass attempts, 26 rushes. That balance is so important.

Tedy: It ties into the offensive line and what I like to call the "Mankins Effect" -- how left guard Logan Mankins was making a big difference. He was tossing everybody and their brother to the side. He didn't care who they were -- a defensive back, a linebacker -- to the point that I don't think any of the Jets wanted a piece of him. He's that guy. He established that. The Patriots dominated the Jets along the line of scrimmage that night, led by Mankins.

Mike: That "Mankins Effect," coupled with some hard-charging running from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a change of pace with Danny Woodhead, has been a big part of the team's success. But this Jets defense remains one of the tougher units to run on.

Tedy: I like their two inside linebackers, Bart Scott and David Harris, and that's a great matchup that cameras don't always focus on: the interior offensive linemen such as Mankins, center Dan Koppen and right guard Dan Connolly against those inside linebackers. I'll be watching that one closely.

Mike: The third phase of this game, special teams, looms large, as well. These two teams have combined for five returns for touchdowns this season -- three for the Patriots, two for the Jets -- so the potential for explosiveness is there.

Tedy: I feel like the Jets' game plan has to be focused on controlling the clock with the running game, keeping the ball out of Tom Brady's hands. You want to have those methodical drives -- 8-, 9-, 10-play drives. Sanchez is going to have to convert on third downs. By doing that, you're not going to score a lot of points, so what is the equalizer? Special teams. Whether you get the points or not, you want to win the field-position battle, even if it's shifting the field position. Then you ask the question, "Do they try to steal a possession with a fake punt or an onside kick?" I think that's something to watch. In this type of game, knowing you got beat 45-3 the last time you played, all bets are off.

Mike: Before we get to our predictions, let's answer a question from a reader. Mark from Tempe, Ariz., asks, "Do you think the Jets will try and play more of an amoeba Cleveland Browns-like defense against the Patriots? Rob Ryan, Rex's brother, was the Browns' defensive coordinator so perhaps he's helping with the plan."

Tedy: Amoeba? Sure. I can see the Ryan's coming up with something new. The best thing that Cleveland did was hold their disguises until the last second before the snap. There will be an element of a chess match in the beginning. Both of these coaching staffs are very good. In-game adjustments will be key.

Mike: Let's get to our predictions. I think this one will be close throughout, and I believe the Jets' offense will have success moving the ball against the Patriots and that front seven, particularly on the ground. In the end, though, I think the Patriots will be able to move it and score more on a Jets' defense that doesn't have great matchups in the middle of the field. The tight ends will be a big part of this attack for the Patriots. Patriots 24, Jets 17.

Tedy: As tight-lipped as the Patriots might be this week, I would anticipate an impassioned pregame speech from Coach Belichick, reminding players of doing their talking with their play and enjoying the experience of ending the season of a hated rival. I see the Patriots moving on to the AFC Championship game with a 31-20 New England victory.

Tedy Bruschi played 13 seasons for the New England Patriots and is a member of the franchise's 50th-anniversary team. Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.