All four NFL divisional playoff games this weekend are rematches from the regular season, but perhaps no game is more personal than the one at 4:30 eastern time on Sunday afternoon. It’s not often that two teams come out and, at minimum, express hatred toward the other, but such is the case between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.
As the football equivalent of the Yanks-Sawx rivalry, the airwaves have been lit up with comments from Rex Ryan and Antonio Cromartie, with both men giving their take on New England. Cromartie’s was a bit more profane, using a TV-unfriendly word to describe Tom Brady. Meanwhile, Bill Belichick has given the edict to his players to not fight the Jets in the media. After all, the Patriots beat the Jets 45-3 in December, so words may not be needed. Deion Branch put it this way: “They say what they say, we do what we do”.
They say that bullies are often afraid and insecure, and thus have to pick on others to raise their self-esteem. The Jets are a little different, however; it’s not usually others that they rake over the coals: it’s themselves. Rex Ryan missed his calling as a cult leader, as Hard Knocks indicated. Though his speeches were often laced with obscenities and righteous anger, you didn’t see one player roll his eyes or scoff. Everyone on the Jets is on the same page, and the players seemingly are willing to maim for their coach. When Ryan said that the Colts game was “personal”, the media picked up on his statement, using it to report Ryan’s losing record against Peyton Manning. That was all the Jets needed to rally late and beat the Colts. Facing the Patriots, Ryan’s stirring the motivational pot, and trying to lead the Jets to a hard-fought win.
2. How did the Jets knock off Indianapolis?
If you had one of the greatest running backs of all time having a resurgent career (LaDainian Tomlinson) and a running back capable of playing as well (Shonn Greene), you’d ride them for as much as you could, right? After a shaky first half that ended with Mark Sanchez throwing a pick into the end zone, the Jets slowly but surely let LT and Greene run amok in the third quarter. In all, the Jets ran 38 times for 169 yards and two scores (both LT’s) on a Colts run defense that has been wrought with injuries. When the Colts took a 16-14 lead with about a minute to go, Mark Sanchez and Braylon Edwards came through on a high pass-turned-great catch, leading to a 32 yard Nick Folk field goal. In addition, the Jets containing defense, other than allowing a 57 yard score, kept Peyton Manning largely in check.
3. Can LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene keep it going vs. New England?
This is where it gets interesting. In 11 games out of 16 this season, the Patriots have allowed 80 or more yards rushing, and 100 or more yards in eight of those games. Two of those games were against the Jets (136 and 152 team yards, respectively). Tomlinson averaged nearly seven yards a carry in their week two meeting, and both men had healthy averages in the game in December where they were blown out (Around five yards a carry for both). It’s highly conceivable that Tomlinson and Greene can dart downfield if offensive coordinator Kyle Schottenheimer follows his template from the Indy game (run heavy in the second half to wear down the defense and keep their star quarterback idle). The Patriots pass defense is also nothing to write home about, so if Sanchez deposits a few safe passes over the middle to his backs, damage can be done.
4. Where did the Jets go wrong on December 6?
It’s hard to say what was more embarrassing for Rex Ryan: the foot fetish allegations involving his wife, or this game. Mark Sanchez and his barrage of mistakes put the Jets into a hole early, and before the first quarter was over, the Patriots had put up 17 points. By halftime, it was 24-3. It seemed like the Jets simply gave up, because Tom Brady proceeded to put up a passing clinic on an unusually lethargic defense. In all, Sanchez threw 3 interceptions, and kicker Nick Folk had a costly field goal miss that led to a BenJarvis Green-Ellis touchdown. What’s most disheartening is that the Jets would have taken over first place in the conference with a win, and then failed so miserably. Rex Ryan remained somewhat upbeat after the game, saying he would play the Patriots again right now if need be. His chance for revenge is here.
5. How did Tom Brady put up such staggering numbers in 2010?
36 touchdowns to 4 interceptions, 3900 yards, 65.9 completion percentage, and all of this was the driving force behind a team that went 14-2 and staked home field advantage for themselves. From what I hear, the Patriots have made their offensive playbook even deeper and more complex, and have accordingly put wide receivers and tight ends around Brady that are capable of learning its complexities. Wes Welker was a given, as one of the brightest receivers in football, but rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have shined in their first year. Also, some rookie named Danny Woodhead was cut by the Jets late in the summer, and immediately was put to use as a “joker” by Bill Belichick, the first player of his type that Brady has worked with. Add the ridding of Randy Moss and the reunion with Deion Branch, and Brady has his most powerful offense yet.
6. How much does the loss of Damien Woody hurt the Jets?
The veteran was the right tackle for an offensive line that jump started LaDainian Tomlinson‘s career after playing for a poor one last year in San Diego. Woody tore his Achilles tendon Saturday night in Indianapolis and found himself on injured reserve. While other top linemen like D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold remain as blockers, the loss of Woody necessitated inserting journeyman Wayne Hunter into the right tackle position. Offensive lines thrive on continuity; putting five Pro Bowlers together who have never been teammates before usually wouldn’t work. Having Hunter protect Mark Sanchez’s sight-side, while starting only five games in two years for the Jets, doesn’t bode well, especially in the loud and intimidating Gillette Stadium. The Patriots may not have the best defense in football, but they’ll see Hunter as a weak spot and exploit it accordingly. On top of that, perhaps LT might be a little less effective.
7. Who does Darrelle Revis cover?
If you don’t think Revis Island is still a death trap, the Bermuda Triangle of pass coverage, ask Reggie Wayne. Wayne could only muster a lone catch for one yard on Saturday night, effectively proving that even Peyton Manning has little in his mental playbook that can lead Wayne out of Revis’ tractor beam. You might think Revis would press Wes Welker, one of the five best receivers in the game, but I somehow doubt that. If anything, if Revis covers Welker, he would split between him and Deion Branch. Revis is at his most dangerous on streaks and post patterns, because he can match just about any receiver’s speed on long-winded sprints. Welker’s more of a complexity over the middle and on crossing routes. Brady finds Welker short and then Wes does the rest. Revis is going to be needed downfield and over the top to keep Brady looking.
8. Which rookie tight end on the Patriots matches up best vs. the Jets?
Rob Gronkowski has had quite the rookie season, notching ten touchdowns, but has been ineffective in both games against the Jets, catching only 2 passes total. Aaron Hernandez had a monster game in week 2, picking up over 100 yards, and was reasonably effective in the December massacre. Gronkowski is more a bulky wide receiver, and plays as a deadly downfield threat, to which the Jets secondary would be more apt to try and conceal. If anything, Gronkowski is a benefit for Hernandez, who’s more traditional of a tight end (albeit slightly undersized). Gronkowski can cause matchup problems that would draw both a linebacker and a safety, creating confusion depending on what route he’s running. This opens up Hernandez over the middle on double tight end sets. Overall, Gronkowski’s opened up routes for a lot of Patriots players, which may explain Brady’s renaissance this season: Rob Gronkowski is the perfect decoy.
In the first half of the Wild Card round game, Sanchez and Peyton Manning were mostly stymied. After Sanchez threw the painful interception, he used the third quarter to lick his wounds and let the running backs rip apart the Colts defense. In the fourth, when the Jets had to try and put the game away, Sanchez threw an ill-advised incompletion to Santonio Holmes, which stopped the clock. The Colts would take the lead on a field goal minutes later, putting enormous pressure on Sanchez. He threw a high, barely catchable completion to Braylon Edwards (who’s the best jumping receiver today next to Brandon Marshall) that was the hallmark of the victory drive. Point is, Sanchez has incredible range. He makes stupid mistakes, but he can also make plays. After all, he did lead the Jets to a dominant second half in their win over the Patriots in week 2.
10. Will the verbal bad blood spill over during the game?
The big story surrounding Sunday’s game has been the war of words from both sides, looking like a jacked up version of the Capulets and Montagues. Despite Bill Belichick imposing a latent gag order on his players, imploring them to let their in-game actions do the talking, Wes Welker came out Thursday with subtle remarks about Rex Ryan and the foot fetish scandal. While that’s more innocent than, say, Antonio Cromartie opining about Tom Brady through cursing, this shows that a Patriots’ player felt the need to insult the Jets publically, which will stir the pot more. In the end, I don’t think there’ll be any in-game fighting, because the Jets usually keep their mouths shut on the field. They’re largely a conservative team that tries to control the clock, and they save the acid tongues for the reporters. Maybe we’ll see pushing and shoving, but probably not much more.
Expect a pretty big rating for this game, since it’s two big markets, two division rivals, two teams that are fun to watch for different reasons, and you have the pro-wrestling style storyline surrounding it. Like the Ravens-Steelers game, there’s a split season series, and all eyes are on the rubber match. While you’d think the 14-2 Patriots would dominate like they did six weeks ago, I’m of the opposite thought. The Jets will play far more conservative, as they did when they took control of the Colts game early in the second half, and they’re going to shift the tempo away from giving the Patriots any chance to build fast momentum. In an upset, I’m going to take the Jets. Rex Ryan has, again, backed himself into a corner with his mouth, and he’s the type who thrives on that kind of pressure. Jets win it in close fashion.
SCORE: Jets 21, Patriots 17
Join ESPN Insider today for the best sports analysis online, plus ESPN The Magazine!