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Saturday, November 12, 2011
Things to watch: Patriots-Jets

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

Here are six things to watch for the New England Patriots in their "Sunday Night Football" road game against the New York Jets (NBC, 8:20 p.m. ET):

1. Tom Brady getting back to being Tom Brady


It has often been said that if Brady is one of the Patriots' biggest concerns, things should be OK. Brady said this week that he has to make better decisions, which is one reason for his high interception total (10, after throwing just four last season), and he's been putting in work after practice with some of his pass-catchers. According to ESPN Stats & Information, nine of Brady's 10 interceptions have come against a rush of four or fewer defenders -- a key stat considering the Jets rushed four or fewer against Brady 78 percent of the time in the past two meetings.

Tom Brady
The Patriots are hoping Tom Brady can regain his touch Sunday vs. the Jets at the Meadowlands.

2. Establishing the running game early


In the first meeting of the season between the teams, the Jets used a "light" box on 58 of 79 defensive snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and the Patriots were content to run the ball against that strategy. It was one of the team's best running days of the season -- the Patriots essentially grounded-and-pounded the original ground-and-pound team -- and showing a similar commitment Sunday night makes sense. Jets coach Rex Ryan said he's happy to take the ball out of Brady's hands and live with the results. Are the Patriots willing to do the same again?

3. Disrupting timing of TE Dustin Keller


Always a top priority in the Patriots' game plan, Keller is one of Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez's favorite targets and leads the team with 29 receptions. The Patriots did an excellent job on Keller in the Oct. 9 meeting by holding him to one catch, with linebacker Rob Ninkovich often getting physical with him at the line of scrimmage. But one needs only look back to games in 2008 (eight catches, 87 yards) and 2010 (seven catches, 115 yards, TD) in which Keller had a major impact against the Patriots.

4. Run fits against ground-and-pound


Ryan said the Jets don't plan to stray far from their ground-and-pound mentality, even though the Patriots are the NFL's 32nd-ranked pass defense. The Patriots take a hit without starting middle linebacker Brandon Spikes -- arguably their best "downhill" run defender -- and that likely means Gary Guyton steps in alongside Jerod Mayo and Ninkovich at linebacker. The Patriots will rely heavily on their big linemen to establish control of the line. In general, when teams have tried to run over the Patriots this season, the big D-line has been up to the task (e.g., Oct. 2 against the Oakland Raiders).

5. Rising up in the red zone


Opponents have advanced inside the red zone against the Patriots 34 times. Only the Colts (35) have had opponents advance inside the red zone more. But one primary reason for the Patriots' 5-3 start is getting tough when the field gets shorter: Of those 35 trips, opponents have scored only 18 touchdowns. The Jets' offense has been efficient this season inside the red zone (16 TDs in 25 trips), ranking fourth in the NFL. It's strength on strength.

6. Tightening up on special teams


The Jets rank first in the NFL in kickoff return average, and they hurt the Patriots in the Oct. 9 meeting with Joe McKnight's 88-yard runback. The Patriots' coverage, on the whole, has been OK this season. It's their return game that could use a spark, which would be one important step toward playing more balanced football.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.