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What to expect? Ultimately, a Patriots win

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 14, 2011 08:15 AM

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By this third meeting, there are really no secrets. The Patriots are who they are. So are the Jets. Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan have matched up four times in the last two seasons, their personalities and philosophical differences becoming increasingly apparent.

The Jets talk a lot. The Patriots don’t. The Jets like to run first and throw second. The Patriots do the opposite. New York believes in aggressive, play-making defense. The Patriots prefer a more methodical, systematic approach, challenging the opposing offenses to execute and reveling when they don’t.

So what will happen Sunday? Let us theorize.

1. The Jets will have a completely different offensive game plan than they one they had in December, and not solely because they lost that game, 45-3. We said it then and we’ll say it again: Out of the gate, Rex Ryan put his team in position to fail in December. The Jets came out in the shotgun and went no-huddle, which was suicide. Mark Sanchez isn’t ready to bear that load and may never be. Against the team with the best offense in the NFL, Ryan let his bravado get the best of him and went up-tempo when he should have done the opposite.

Dumb.

Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.

If the Jets are to have a chance in this game, they will need to control the ball effectively enough to bleed the clock and slow the pace of the game, as they did for much of their affair with Indianapolis. New York actually ran quite effectively against the Patriots in December, though many of those runs came out of passing formations, with the Patriots in sub-defenses. Belichick is likely to dare Sanchez to throw at times, opening up potential plays for Sanchez.

Around and around it goes. Somewhere along the line, Sanchez is going to have make at least some plays if the Jets are to challenge and win. When the Jets are on offense, striking a balance between run and pass is the most critical element of this game.

2. The Jets will take a more conservative approach on defense and let the Patriots run. Again, this all comes down to pace of game. In the Colts-Jets game last week, Indy ran 27 times, passed 26. Edge: Jets. Even then, the Jets trailed with less than a minute to go, when the Indy special teams allowed a big kickoff returns and the Colts defense faltered.

Or did the Jets special teams and offense succeed?

Whatever the case, Ryan is likely to give up the run, particularly if the Patriots are in the shotgun or spread the field (or both). So long as the Patriots run, the clock will keep moving and New England, in theory, will need more time to score. That will slow down the game and keep the Jets close. In short, the Jets will play defense a lot more like the Patriots usually do, hoping to bottle up the Patriots in the red zone by allowing field goals instead of touchdowns.

As such, Danny Woodhead could be a huge headache for the Jets in this game. If the Patriots opt to run Woodhead out of the shotgun, he will get yardage in big chunks. Woodhead and is quick and elusive in open spaces, far more so than any back on the Indianapolis roster last week.

The last time these teams met, the Patriots averaged seven yards a play and Brady averaged 11 yards per attempt. That won’t happen again.

3. The Jets secondary will play better and Darrelle Revis will be much more of a factor than he was the last time. And the Pats will throw at Antonio Cromartie every chance they get. Again, both of these seem obvious, but not for the reasons you might think. Revis did not play poorly in the last game, but he was a complete non-factor. The Jets moved him around some and Brady threw where Revis wasn’t.

In this game, expect Revis to lock in on either Deion Branch or probably Wes Welker, more likely the latter because he is still Brady’s best pure possession receiver. Welker still might get open some, but the Patriots may need to find better matchups elsewhere.

That brings us to Cromartie, who matches up poorly with Welker or Deion. Regardless of what Cromartie thinks of Brady, he was likely to be a target anytime he matched up with Welker or Branch. That won’t change. The question is whether Ryan will put Cromartie elsewhere – on a tight end, perhaps? – though yesterday’s injury to nickel back Drew Coleman could change things.

One thing to remember: just before the last game between these teams, the Jets also lost a defensive back to injury, safety Jim Leonhard, who called their defenses. Replacement Eric Smith played poorly against the Patriots and the Jets got steamrolled. Smith played pretty well against Indy on Sunday and looks like a different player than the one who took the field in early December.

No matter what the Jets do here, the Patriots will have options. Brady needs Welker and Branch to operate at peak efficiency, but he also has Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Woodhead (a huge problem for the Jets last time as a receiver) to throw to. In the last meeting, Branch (25), Hernandez (35) and Woodhead (50) all had long receptions. Welker also had an 18-yarder.

This is why the Jets might be best-served to play far more conservatively.

4. The Jets will do everything possible to score first. Maybe that means taking the ball if they win the coin toss. Maybe that means a slightly more aggressive approach early in hopes of catching the Patriots off-guard. Whatever the case, New York can’t afford to play catch-up in this game, and anything close to a fast start by the Pats will immediately evoke comparisons (and memories) to the December blowout.

The Patriots don’t need to start fast in this game. The Jets do. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that in all four meetings between the Patriots and Jets since Ryan took over the New York operation prior to last season, the Patriots have led at halftime. The Jets dominated the second half of both games in New York and the Patriots dominated the first half of both games in New England. If the Jets can weather the storm early, they can find themselves in uncharted territory in New England during the Ryan era.

During Ryan’s tenure, the Jets have trailed by scores of 24-7 and 24-3 in their two trips to New England. In both games, the Pats used the Jets’ aggressive style against them. The start of this game will highlight the matchup of Belichick and Ryan, which Ryan himself said is at the core of this game. Ryan is a good coach but Belichick is a Lombardian figure.

If you’re a Patriots fan, that should all make you feel pretty good.

5. The Patriots must be wary of kick returns. Again, this might be seem like a knee-jerk reaction to the game between the Jets and Colts, in which Cromartie had a big kick return to set up the game-winning field goal. It isn’t. Whether Cromartie or Brad Smith is returning kicks, the Jets were one of the best in the league at kick returns – and they need to be. The New York offense hardly qualifies as explosive, so every yard helps.

Obviously, some of this plays back to Sanchez. The shorter the field, the less the pressure, the more aggressive the Jets can be with him. If and when the Patriots score, New England’s coverage on the ensuing kickoff is critical to the team’s success because pinning this Jets team deep in its own end can make all the difference in the world – for both teams.

Of course, if the Pats are kicking off a lot, it probably won’t matter (unless New England is getting only field goals). But with Santonio Holmes returning punts and Cromartie/Smith returning kicks, the Jets are explosive on special teams. It is the one area in which New York’s scoring potential rivals (or surpasses) that of New England.

The pick: New England 30, New York 20. The Patriots have too many weapons and the Jets don’t have enough firepower.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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