Commentary

Breaking down Jets-Patriots matchup

Four things to know heading into Monday night's AFC East clash

Updated: December 4, 2010, 9:12 AM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

With the New England Patriots getting ready to host the New York Jets on Monday Night Football, storylines abound. So let's dive into the numbers, take at look at historic and recent trends and analyze upcoming schedules to figure out what it all means for the AFC East title.

Here are four key things to know going into Monday:

1. The Patriots dominate December

For Patriots fans, the season can't start soon enough. That is, if you go by Bill Belichick's definition. Let's have Tom Brady explain:

"Coach always says -- and I said this last week -- 'Football season starts after Thanksgiving,'" Brady said Monday during his weekly appearance on Boston radio station WEEI. "It's after Thanksgiving. Now we're going to see what kind of football team we have."

If history is any guide, the Patriots have quite a team. (Warning: If you happen to be a Lions fan, you might want to skip ahead.)

From 2001 to 2009, the Patriots went 33-5 in December, best in the NFL. Over those same years, the Detroit Lions went 33-111 in all months combined. The same number of wins, 106 more games.

The lesson? The Patriots own the month of December. Oh, and the Lions have been historically woeful.

Compare New England's December prowess to the rest of its schedule. In every other month, the Patriots are 83-34 since 2001, a .709 winning percentage that would be just about unheard of for any other franchise. But it pales in comparison to the .868 in December.

It should be noted, while the Patriots have established a December dynasty, they aren't even the NFL's hottest December team. The San Diego Chargers have won an NFL-record 18 consecutive games in the month, and their schedule certainly favors them to make that 22 in a row.

Last year's loss to the Dolphins in Miami snapped a 12-game December win streak for New England, the third-longest in NFL history.

Perhaps the best news of all is that the Patriots have already made their trip to Miami. Since 2003, New England is 0-3 in Miami in December and 27-0 everywhere else.

For his part, Brady is 29-5 in his career in December, with Matt Cassel accounting for a 4-0 December in 2008. Brady's distaste for South Beach in December is nearly equaled by his joy at home in the holiday season. In his career, Brady is 17-1 at home in December.

That lone loss? Dec. 22, 2002, against the Jets.

New York scored 13 unanswered points to close the game and win 30-17. In that one, Brady had just 133 passing yards on 3.59 yards per attempt, which remains his fewest in a home game.

Since that loss, Brady has won 14 consecutive home games in December.

2. The Jets are 5-0 (on the road) with a long way to go

The Patriots are 5-0 at home. The Jets are 5-0 on the road. Something's gotta give, right?

Amazingly, this is just the sixth time in NFL history that a team 5-0 or better on the road travels to face a team with a 5-0 or better home record. The home team won the past three instances, most recently when the Seattle Seahawks knocked off the Indianapolis Colts in 2005.

On the surface, a 5-0 road record is a far more impressive feat. The Jets are the only remaining undefeated road team, while three teams join the Patriots as perfect at home.

Over the past eight seasons, there have been 15 perfect home records in the NFL but just one perfect record on the road: The 2007 Patriots.

Indeed, a perfect road record is almost always the more impressive feat. But this is a tale of two different 5-0 records. Sure, the Patriots took down basement dwellers in the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills. But New England also did away with the Colts and Baltimore Ravens.

The Jets' 5-0 road record is courtesy of wins over two 2-9 teams (Bills and Lions), as well as the Denver Broncos (3-8), Cleveland Browns (4-7), and Dolphins (6-5). Both Detroit and Cleveland dragged the Jets into overtime.

Entering this week, the Jets have had the easiest road schedule in the NFL, with their opponents combining for a .309 winning percentage. So could they become the first team to go undefeated on the road since the 2007 Patriots? Not so fast.

The Jets' next two road games come against the Patriots (9-2) and Steelers (8-3). Those two teams have the same numbers of wins (17) as the Jets' first five road opponents have combined (17-38).

After that, New York heads to Chicago in Week 16 to face the Bears (8-3). All told, the Jets' remaining road opponents are a combined 25-8. That's the second-toughest remaining slate of road games in the NFL.

Last December, the Jets beat the Colts in a game in which Jim Caldwell pulled his starters in the third quarter. Apart from that, the Jets' last December road win against a playoff team came in 1999 against the Dolphins.

3. Monday and the AFC East title

This will be just the fourth time that a pair of teams 9-2 or better are squaring off on Monday Night Football, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The previous three were home wins by the San Francisco 49ers in 1987, '89 and '90.

While all three of those games certainly held significant playoff implications, San Francisco wasn't facing a divisional foe.

At this juncture in the season, this Jets-Patriots matchup is unprecedented for its postseason significance in front of a Monday prime-time audience. Even with four games remaining after it, in all likelihood, Monday will decide the AFC East title. Winning the AFC East would likely mean a first-round bye and quite possibly home field throughout the playoffs. Second place means the wild card and a road playoff game. Last decade, home teams were 64-37 in the postseason.

So what exactly is at stake?

If the Jets win, they'd hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, meaning the Patriots essentially need to overcome a two-game deficit.

Meanwhile, if the Jets lose, they'd need to make up that game in the standings, with road games against the Bears and Steelers looming. On top of that, tiebreaker scenarios would seem to favor the Patriots (as described below).

Looking ahead to their final five games, the Jets have the NFL's third-hardest remaining schedule. But given those three road games against likely playoff teams, a strong case can be made that the Jets have the toughest remaining schedule in the league.

All of that just reinforces the notion both teams would have a difficult time capturing the division if they lose Monday.

The prognosticators agree. According to AccuScore.com, the Jets would be an 81 percent favorite to win the AFC East with a win. A Patriots win would make New England an 82 percent favorite.

Quite simply, the stakes could not be higher for a Week 13 game.

The good news for Patriots fans? Because the Patriots are given a 68 percent chance of winning Monday, AccuScore has them as a 61 percent favorite to take the division.

4. What you (probably won't) need to know about tiebreakers

As those AccuScore numbers attest, Monday will in all likelihood decide the AFC East. But it's by no means assured. Let's dive into the nitty gritty and see what could happen.

If the Jets win Monday, the AFC East picture becomes very straightforward. Because the Jets would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, the Patriots would need to finish with a better overall record to capture the division title.

If the Patriots win, the outlook becomes muddled in the event of a tie atop the division. Let's take a quick look at how it could take shape following a Patriots win Monday:

First tiebreaker -- head-to-head: In this case, the Patriots and Jets would be even in head-to-head matchups. That means we'd go to the next tiebreaker: divisional record.

Second tiebreaker -- divisional record: Both teams would be 3-1 in the division with a game each remaining against the Dolphins and Bills. Both teams host Miami, and given the Bills' futility, a sweep seems likely. That would leave equal 5-1 records against the AFC East. On to the next tiebreaker: common opponents.

Third tiebreaker -- W-L vs. common opponents: The Jets are 7-2 against common opponents, while the Patriots are 8-1. Again let's assume sweeps of the Bills and Dolphins. Both teams face road games against the Bears, which will be no easy task. Given that the Jets would need to make up a game in the standings, they are clearly at a disadvantage from a scheduling standpoint. In Week 15, New York plays in Pittsburgh, while the Patriots host the Packers. Advantage: New England, and a big reason it will probably never get to a tiebreaker scenario.

Fourth tiebreaker -- conference record: Assume for a moment that the Jets win out after losing Monday. If the Patriots then lose to either Chicago or Green Bay (but not both), while beating the Bills and Dolphins, we'd be in for more tiebreaking fun. Not only would the first three tiebreakers be irrelevant, so would this one. Both teams would be 10-2 in the AFC. Moving on ...

Fifth tiebreaker -- strength of victory: If it ever gets this far (certainly not out of the question), we will finally have some resolution. The Patriots' wins against uncommon opponents look much better. New England beat the Colts and Chargers, while the Jets topped the Broncos and Texans. Consider that despite mediocre records right now, San Diego and Indy, respectively, have the easiest and tied for the second-easiest remaining schedules in the AFC. Ironically, this is also where losing to the Browns and beating the Ravens looks a whole lot better than the reverse.

And you wondered why the Patriots lost to Cleveland.

Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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