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Saturday, January 15, 2011
10 things for Jets-Patriots

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

A look at 10 areas that project to be crucial, from a New England Patriots perspective, in Sunday's playoff game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium (CBS, 4:30 p.m. ET):

1. Run defense and the personnel in the front seven. The Jets' ground-and-pound approach was a big part of their wild-card round win over the Indianapolis Colts. The Jets had opened the Dec. 6 loss to the Patriots in a no-huddle attack with quarterback Mark Sanchez in the shotgun, but that plan didn't work. One line of thinking is that the Jets will go back to ground-and-pound this time around, so it's up to the Patriots' front seven -- which has depth concerns along the defensive line and with inside linebacker Brandon Spikes returning from suspension -- to answer the challenge up front.

2. Jets' plans with cornerback Darrelle Revis. Patriots receiver Wes Welker said that when the Jets were playing man coverage on Dec. 6, Revis was most often matched up against him. With Jets coach Rex Ryan looking to simplify the game plan, that could be a tip-off that they will be playing even more man coverage. If that's the case, and Revis is on Welker on most every snap, how does that impact what the Patriots do on offense?

3. Kickoff coverage against Brad Smith and Antonio Cromartie. Smith, who is questionable with a groin injury, is one of the NFL's most dangerous kickoff returners, while Cromartie also showed his explosiveness with a 47-yard return to set up Nick Folk's game-winning field goal against the Colts. Patriots kicker Shayne Graham's kickoffs generally aren't as deep as Stephen Gostkowski's, so hang time and allowing the coverage time to get down the field takes on added importance. The Jets and Patriots returned two kickoffs for touchdowns apiece during the regular season, so there is a potential for fireworks in that area.

4. Jets tight end Dustin Keller and jams at the line. Keller hurt the Patriots in the first meeting between the teams, totaling seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown. When the Patriots reviewed that performance, they felt Keller was given too many free releases off the line of scrimmage, so they played him more physically -- sometimes lining up an outside linebacker over him whose job was to deliver a powerful jam -- and Keller was limited to three receptions the second time around.

5. First-quarter scoring. The Patriots have outscored opponents 103-39 in the first quarter, which reflects that they are often playing games on their terms, forcing opponents to be one-dimensional. It was 17-0 after the first quarter Dec. 6. One of the common threads in games the Patriots lost or had to win late was that opponents kept it close early.

6. Rookies rising to the moment. When asked about playoff experience, Ryan pointed out that the Jets' roster has 196 games of playoff experience, whereas the Patriots have just 101. The Patriots rely on a lot of players who will be in a pressure-packed playoff situation for the first time. Will they respond favorably?

7. Pass protection vs. Jets' unpredictable defense. The Jets can blitz as much as any team in the NFL but are also flexible enough to back off when the situation calls for it, as they did last weekend in Indianapolis. In the Week 2 matchup between the teams, the Jets did a nice job of mixing their pressures with some heavy coverage calls, which never allowed quarterback Tom Brady to get into a rhythm. Look for that type of plan again, which will challenge the blockers up front.

8. Balance and the running backs. The Patriots' offense is at its best when it strikes a balance between the run and pass, with the Dec. 6 win over the Jets one example of that. The Patriots had 29 pass attempts and 26 rushing attempts that night. The balance wasn't there in the Week 2 loss to the Jets (36 pass attempts, 20 rushing). The Patriots will be working hard to get BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead going on the ground.

9. Brandon Spikes knocking off the rust. Returning from an NFL-imposed four-game suspension, Spikes, a rookie inside linebacker, figures to be thrown right back into the mix. One of the biggest things he brings to the defense is a strong run-stopping presence. The Jets are a solid running team. Does he pick up where he left off?

10. Patriots kicker Shayne Graham back in the playoffs. If the game comes down a field goal, the Patriots will be relying on the foot of Graham, who was 12-of-12 during the regular season. His long was 41 yards, against the Jets. Graham did have his struggles in last year's playoffs -- missing field goals from 35 and 28 yards in a Bengals loss to the Jets -- so there are some questions as to how he'll react to the playoff atmosphere.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.