As part of our extensive preview of Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets, we're asking ESPNBoston.com Patriots beat writer Mike Reiss and ESPNNewYork.com Jets beat writer Rich Cimini four key questions about Sunday's matchup:
Mike: For the Jets to win, I think the formula has to be ball control on offense and that they need points on special teams, or at least a big return that sets up easier points. I think they can do both, which is why I envision this as a close game. The Patriots jump on teams early, outscoring them 103-39 in the first quarter this season. That means they are often playing games on their terms. A fast start will be imperative for the Jets. In the end, I think the Jets will bring their A-game, but that the Patriots will, as well. I see the Patriots as a cut above: Patriots 24, Jets 17.
Rich: It won't be 45-3 -- or anything close. I expect the Jets to play a very good game, but I don't think they have enough on defense to stop Tom Brady & Co. I think the Jets are going to try to play a "light box" on defense, going with smaller but faster personnel. The strategy worked well against Peyton Manning, but the Colts don't run the ball as well as the Pats. The Patriots will run against a light box. If the Jets switch to bigger personnel, they'll get torched in the passing game. It's a Catch-22 for them. The Jets will play ball control and keep it relatively close, with Mark Sanchez hitting some plays off play-action. It'll be a four-quarter game, but in that situation, I'll take Brady over Sanchez: Patriots 24, Jets 20.
Mike: Is there really anything under the radar this week? I feel like we've covered all the matchups, maybe except for the equipment managers on both teams. Special teams can often be overlooked, so let's start there. Patriots kicker Shayne Graham was signed in early November after Stephen Gostkowski was placed on injured reserve, and he's been solid in going 12-of-12 on field goals, with a long of 41. But the pressure intensifies in the playoffs and Graham had a tough time last year, which Jets fans saw firsthand. Graham missed two field goals in the Bengals' 24-14 wild-card loss to the Jets, from 35 and 28 yards. That contributed to the Bengals moving on from Graham, with coach Marvin Lewis saying Graham has "demons of his last kicks." So if the game comes down to a field goal, that could be an under-the-radar aspect to consider.
Rich: If Shayne Graham is asked to make a pressure kick, I think the Jets' eyes will light up. They have fond memories of him from last year. In terms of the Jets' kicking game, Nick Folk is enjoying hero status after last week's game-winning kick as time expired, but I don't think he inspires a whole lot of confidence. He has a long leg, but he had some hiccups in the second half of the season. I think an X factor in this game could be playoff experience: The Jets have a lot, the Patriots don't. The Jets have 35 players with at least four games of playoff experience, the Patriots have only 13. In fact, the Patriots have 22 players with zero experience in the postseason. It's a weird fact, because the Patriots are synonymous with the postseason, but they're a younger team than usual and you wonder how they'll hold up under pressure.
Mike: I think that is a great X factor, as this is as young a playoff team as Bill Belichick has had in his 11-year tenure. I'm going to stay with special teams for another under-the-radar thought -- the return game. We saw how critical it was for the Jets in setting up Folk's game-winning field goal last week, with Antonio Cromartie delivering that 47-yard return. Both teams are dangerous in this area, with the Patriots having dual threats on kickoffs (Brandon Tate) and punts (Julian Edelman). You know the Jets, between Brad Smith (if healthy) and Cromartie on kickoffs, will be cooking something up for the Patriots. Between these two groups of kickoff and punt returners, there have been five touchdowns scored this season. I wouldn't be surprised if we see another Sunday.
Rich: You're right, Mike, the Jets have a good special-teams unit and a very good coach, Mike Westhoff. Considering his recent comments about the Patriots, accusing them of an illegal sideline wall, he might want to wear a helmet on the sideline. He'll probably be a target of the fans. The Jets' kickoff-returning situation is up in the air. Smith gets the nod if healthy, but he's not 100 percent, so it could be Cromartie. Getting back to the playoff experience, I asked Rex Ryan about it Thursday, and he threw out this nugget: The Jets' roster has 196 games of playoff experience, the Patriots only 101. No doubt he shared that with the team, using it as a confidence builder. That said, the Patriots have a quarterback with three Super Bowl rings, and that makes up for a lot.
Rich: I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying Mark Sanchez will play better than he did in the last meeting, the 45-3 debacle. You can't play much worse than that. It's hard to predict Sanchez's performances because, like most young quarterbacks, he's inconsistent. He played wonderfully late in the season, but he struggled with his accuracy in the wild-card game against Indianapolis. To his credit, he made some clutch throws to pull out the win, but he can't afford a slow start against the Patriots.
The Jets need to devise a game plan that allows Sanchez to get rid of the ball quickly; that's when he's at his best. I think his shoulder injury still is a factor, so I wouldn't expect many long passes. He's had problems at Gillette (0-2, with 1 TD and 7 INTs), so there could be some psychological issues there. As for Broadway Tom, the Jets have no shot if he brings his A-game. To be frank, I think they'd have a hard time winning if he brings his B-game. Somehow, the Jets have to pressure him, forcing him to his second and third reads. Easy for me to say, but hard to execute.
Mike: Great point on the slow starts with the Jets; I view that as a huge key to this game. You look at the games the Patriots have lost or that have come down to the wire, and they were games in which the Patriots didn't jump out quickly. They have outscored opponents 103-39 in the first quarter this season, which means they're often playing games on their terms. So I think we'll find out very quickly, within the first 15 minutes, what type of game Mark Sanchez is going to have.
I agree with you that it will be better than Dec. 6 because it couldn't get much worse. Still, from a Patriots perspective, the plan will be "put the ball in the hands of Sanchez" and that means stopping ground-and-pound. The Patriots have injury concerns on the defensive line and at outside linebacker, so they're not coming in with their sturdiest group in the front seven. I think the Jets can challenge them and have success running the ball. In turn, that should make life easier for Sanchez.
Rich: One thing to keep in mind about Sanchez: He can start slow and finish strong. He did it against Cleveland, Detroit and Houston, but it's a different deal against the Patriots. If you start slow, you could be finished. Here's a remarkable stat about the Jets' inability to start fast: The offense has gone 13 straight games without a first-quarter touchdown. How is that possible? I think some of it falls on the players, and I think a lot of it falls on offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. In the last meeting, he tried to get the offense out of its first-quarter funk by using some hurry-up. Good idea, bad execution. Schottenheimer has to give Sanchez a plan that enables him to have early success. You fall behind against Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, and you're making your tee times for the offseason.
Mike: As for if the Jets can win if Tom Brady brings his A-game, I believe they can, although several things have to fall into place for them. It starts with time of possession, controlling the ball, and limiting Brady's opportunities as much as possible. I believe they can do that by focusing on the run and putting the game on the shoulders of that impressive offensive line. That is exactly what they didn't do on Dec. 6, instead coming out in that no-huddle package with Sanchez in the shotgun.
I have some doubts about the Patriots' front seven right now against this ground-and-pound approach, which factors in rookie inside linebacker Brandon Spikes returning for the first time since his four-game suspension. I also think the Jets need at least one big play on special teams that either produces points or sets up easy points. Put those two factors together, which I don't think are too far-fetched, and I can envision the Jets winning even if Brady brings his A-game.
Mike: One of the points that I made over the weekend, after the Jets' win over the Colts, is that I think Ryan's coaching acumen gets overshadowed by all of the talking he does. I think Ryan is an excellent coach. In terms of which coach got more out of his team this year, I'd pick Belichick. I start with the regular-season win total -- 14 versus 11. Then I look at the makeup of each roster and the Patriots have a lot of youth. I might go as far as to say this is Belichick's finest coaching job in his 11-year Patriots tenure. As for Ryan, I think he deserves a lot of credit for getting the Jets to play hard for him. I was one of those people who wondered if that team would fall apart because it seemed to be collecting big-name talent, not building a team. But Ryan made sure it was a team -- a very good one at that.
Rich: There is no question that Belichick got more out of his team than Ryan. This was supposed to be a transition season for the Patriots. I know that's not how they were thinking in the Belichick bunker, but that was the perception here in New York -- and it was magnified when the Pats traded Randy Moss. What Belichick did was remarkable, reinventing his team on the fly. The Patriots changed their passing offense midstream, and that's not easy to do. They'll never admit it publicly, but I've talked to a couple of Jets players who think Belichick deserves coach of the year. I'm not trying to diminish Ryan's year; he did a masterful job of blending new players -- a bunch of guys with "character" issues -- into a very good, harmonious team. But the Jets went through a stretch at midseason where they were pulling out games in the 60th minute (and beyond) against bad teams. A couple of breaks the other way, and the Jets could've been an eight- or nine-win team.
Mike: It's interesting that the Moss trade created the perception that this would be a bridge season for the Patriots in some corners, but my sense is that Belichick viewed it as just the opposite. To get where they needed to go, it was time to move on from a player whose presence was starting to become an issue behind the scenes in a young, impressionable locker room. Footballwise, I think the Sept. 19 game against the Jets further solidified that line of thinking as Moss was targeted 10 times and had just two catches. One thing about Belichick, he's not afraid to make the bold decision. After a 2009 season in which the locker room was splintered and all 53 players weren't pulling in the same direction, this season has been a different story, and Belichick gets the credit for that.
Rich: I remember talking to a Jets player (won't use his name) when the Moss trade came down, and he told me, "How do you get rid of your only deep threat?" Maybe the Jets thought it was going to be a picnic, the post-Moss Patriots, but the Patriots have become a tougher team to defend. Putting Darrelle Revis on Moss used to be a no-brainer; now Ryan has different variables to consider. I'll say this for Belichick: He's got guts. He's earned the right to get the benefit of the doubt on his football moves. In contrast, Ryan took a lot of heat for some of his offseason moves (especially dumping Thomas Jones and Alan Faneca), probably because he doesn't have an extensive track record. Most of his moves have worked out well, but I'm still sticking with the original premise: Belichick got more out of his team than Ryan.