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Rematch not a replay

A lot has changed for the Patriots and the Jets since their first meeting

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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When the Patriots and Jets tangle Monday night for AFC supremacy, they each will have played nine games since they met Sept 19. That’s an eternity in the NFL.

So what has changed since the Jets scored 21 unanswered points to put an emphatic 28-14 beatdown on the Patriots? Plenty.

For starters, the Jets no longer are fighting for their season, fending off hysterical fans, or defending quarterback Mark Sanchez.

Those things were going on after the Jets opened the season with a 10-9 loss to the Ravens at New Meadowlands Stadium.

A loss to the Patriots at home would have put the Jets in a hole they might not have gotten out of. But the Jets beat the Patriots, and have won eight of their last nine to equal New England at 9-2.

A look at what has changed and what will factor into the game, according to league observers:

Look who’s back. The Jets have been bolstered by the return of outside linebacker Calvin Pace (foot surgery) and receiver Santonio Holmes (suspension).

Pace led the team in tackles last season, and with him back, Jason Taylor goes back to his better-suited role as a situational pass rusher.

“If you break it down, Jason Taylor may be their best pass rusher, but Calvin Pace is their second best,’’ said an AFC pro personnel executive. “So they got back their second-best pass rusher and solidified their run defense.’’

Holmes has only enhanced his reputation as one of the game’s best clutch receivers, with four key plays in recent wins.

“It’s not just what he does exclusively, I think it’s what he’s been able to do to influence the offense,’’ the AFC executive said. “There’s a legitimate deep threat in the passing game now. It has opened things up for everybody else in the passing offense.

“Prior to that Cincinnati game [Nov. 25], there were four straight games where Sanchez had thrown for nearly 300 yards almost every outing. You just felt like the onslaught was coming with the influence that Holmes had in the offense.

“I think you saw some of the explosive play-making. You saw a spike in average per catch from he, [Dustin] Keller, even [Jerricho] Cotchery, and especially Braylon Edwards. Just because of the big-play threat Santonio Holmes brings to the game.’’

Ground control. The Patriots also have gotten a pretty good player back in Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins, who returned against the Browns Nov. 7 after a contract dispute.

Tom Brady has been sacked twice in the last three games (he was sacked 12 times in a five-game stretch starting with the first Jets game), and the running game has reeled off three straight 100-yard performances. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead have averaged 5.1 yards per attempt since Mankins returned.

“I think their running game has become more of a factor,’’ said an NFC pro personnel director. “Mankins brought back a lot of kick-butt attitude to that line.’’

In the first meeting, the Patriots had 52 rushing yards — their lowest output since Nov. 25, 2007. Having Mankins back should help left tackle Matt Light and center Dan Koppen this time around.

Addition by subtraction. If the first matchup wasn’t the beginning of the end for Randy Moss with the Patriots, you sure fooled us.

He was targeted 10 times. Besides his beautiful one-handed touchdown grab before halftime (on a blown assignment by a Jets safety), Moss contributed next to nothing and looked as though he didn’t want to be there. He dropped three passes in the first half, then gave less than a full effort on Brady’s first interception.

Moss played so poorly that the Jets went away from double coverage in the second half as they focused on taking Wes Welker away from Brady. Welker had two catches on the first drive of the second half and that was it.

It is no wonder Moss went from 10 targets in that game to three against Buffalo, one against Miami, and then was traded to Minnesota. His effort, which was questioned by some Jets defenders following the game, was suspect.

Enter Deion Branch, a pro’s pro, in a trade with the Seahawks. He has 17 catches in the last three games for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Add in the growth of rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and Welker showing more of his old form, and Brady has things going again.

“I’m not saying it’s done on purpose, but there is probably more of a flow in terms of ball distribution,’’ the AFC executive said. “Whoever is open gets it. I think that’s what it boils down to.

“With Moss, you had to keep him interested. Those guys are always hungry.’’

Defensively, the Patriots benched cornerback Darius Butler after he was targeted eight times against the Jets and gave up five receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown, and was penalized twice for pass interference.

The nickel package — corners Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, and safety Patrick Chung — is much improved over what the Patriots showed the first time.

The would-be Jet. There will still be times when the Patriots miss running back Kevin Faulk, who left the Jets game with a season-ending knee injury. But Danny Woodhead, a former Jet, has proven to be a better overall player because he has more speed.

“I think he’s been a find for them,’’ the AFC executive said. “When they lost [Faulk], that was an element of their offense where they legitimately leaned on him for third down.

“Danny Woodhead has been able to pick up the slack and run with it, if not be better because of the speed element. That creates certain mismatches against linebackers and safeties in space.’’

With Welker being bracketed, and not having Faulk (plus Moss’s struggles), it’s no wonder Brady was 7 of 16 for 69 yards and two interceptions in the second half of the first meeting.

Adjustments. Jets All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis was not 100 percent for the first game because of a hamstring injury; he left at halftime. Without Revis, Jets coach Rex Ryan blitzed Brady just once until there were six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. New York should be back to its blitzing ways (nearly 80 percent on third downs) with Revis at full strength. But the zone coverages also threw Brady a curve.

Defensively, the Patriots will have to have an answer for the three-receiver sets to one side of the formation, which the Jets used with a lot of success both running (103 of 136 yards came in second half) and passing (Sanchez set career highs with 21 completions, a 70 percent completion rate, and three touchdown passes).

“The young secondary hopefully is getting better with pass defense, even if they are better run-support players,’’ the NFC executive said of the Patriots.

So a lot has changed for both the Patriots and Jets. You could also expect a change in score. Both executives picked the Patriots to win a tight battle.

“Logic says the best players are on the Jets, but the team that executes the best will be the Patriots,’’ the NFC executive said.

“I think the Jets’ offense will give the defense trouble again, but I think the Patriots may be able to stay with the Jets far better than they did the first game,’’ the AFC executive said.

“I think this offense is in a groove right now for the Patriots. They make the plays necessary both in the pass and run game at the right time.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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