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A closer call

Patriots should have edge, but Jets may be sharper than last time

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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More than a few people probably are expecting another game along the lines of the Patriots’ 45-3 rout of the Jets in early December when the teams meet again in the divisional round of the playoffs Sunday.

Why not?

That game, on Dec. 6 at Gillette Stadium, had plenty of meaning for both teams, who each had 11 days to prepare after playing on Thanksgiving. It was a playoff-type atmosphere on “Monday Night Football,’’ and a Jets win would have all but assured them of the AFC East title and doomed the rival Patriots to the road for the playoffs.

But it didn’t happen. Not even close. The Patriots took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and never looked back as they pummeled the Jets in embarrassing fashion.

“I came in to kick his butt and he kicked mine,’’ Jets coach Rex Ryan said after the game. “Obviously we got outcoached, got outplayed, got our butt kicked. I don’t know what else you can say about it.’’

There isn’t an obvious reason the outcome should be much different this time around, since each of the 44 starters from that game will be there again.

But some NFL observers feel otherwise.

Three personnel executives who have scouted both teams extensively think the score will be much closer.

“With this type of series, I think you can throw out all the past because I don’t think it’s a prediction of what’s going to happen,’’ one executive said. “Rex is obviously going to dissect that film and know how [the Patriots] attacked them in that way, but at the same time Bill Belichick knows he’s not going to go in with the same game plan.

“I just don’t think, especially with everything that’s on the line in the playoffs, it’s going to turn out to be a game that is that big of a disparity in points.’’

The biggest reason all three gave was that last time the Jets came in with flawed game plans on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, the Jets came out in a shotgun, no-huddle offense with one running back designed to spread the Patriots out and keep them from their situational substitutions. By the time the Jets ran two conventional designed running plays back-to-back, it was the second quarter and they were trailing, 17-0.

“I think you just go back to what Rex Ryan said, that he got outcoached, and sometimes coaches try to do too much and get away from what they do, start thinking they can outsmart the other players and they end up outsmarting themselves,’’ the executive said. “So I think just taking from what he’s been saying, I think he’s going to go with what got him there and not get outcoached, and that’s what it looked like to me.

“If they’re smart, they run the rock and keep the rock out of Tom Brady’s hand. The key is to minimize his touches and maximize your touches along with maximizing . . . you can’t get in the red zone and kick field goals. You’ve got to score touchdowns.’’

Defensively, the Jets rarely blitzed and sat back in zone coverages, which Brady picked apart. That may have been the strategy because just days earlier, the Jets saw safety Jim Leonhard, the quarterback of the secondary, go down with a season-ending injury.

“They could have gotten spooked and taken out a lot of what they had planned to do,’’ another executive said. “That’s not much of an excuse since a lot of those guys have been there a while.’’

And it’s not an effective strategy.

“Anytime that Tom Brady has had any trouble or when his game is a little shaky is when you get pressure on him and interrupt not only with blitzes and hitting him but interrupt the timing with his receivers,’’ the first executive said. “So I would assume that they would have an extensive blitz package but also try to lock down those receivers with disrupting their timing off the line of scrimmage.’’

There is another possible strategy but you can’t execute it from a 17-0 deficit.

“They don’t want a track meet on the scoreboard,’’ the second executive said. “They may not blitz as much, force New England to go on 10- to 12-play drives, keep it all in front of them and make tackles. But, the Patriots will find their weak link sooner or later and find those tight ends on safeties and linebackers, or [Danny] Woodhead in space and attack the nickel defender.’’

The Jets will have to figure out what to do with cornerback Antonio Cromartie. At 6 feet 2 inches, he was exposed early in man-to-man coverage against 5-9 Deion Branch. Perhaps the Jets, who matched Darrelle Revis mostly against Wes Welker, will use Cromartie more against the tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who will be even more valuable as outlets should the Jets ramp up the blitzes.

“That’s picking your poison, basically,’’ a third executive said of Cromartie against a tight end. “They have so many different weapons and they have so many different ways that they use them. If you put him on a tight end, then you better feel confident that Dwight Lowery or Kyle Wilson or Drew Coleman or Marquice Cole can handle the other receivers, Branch and [Brandon] Tate.’’

All three executives expect the Jets to come out in their “ground and pound’’ offense, which worked so well in the second half against the Colts.

“Just try to run, because look at their numbers on the defensive line,’’ said one executive, referring to the injuries up front for the Patriots. “Gotta go after them, and then your middle linebacker [Brandon] Spikes is coming back for the first time in four games, so I would assume that’s what they would do.

“With the Patriots’ corners being rather young, I’d just lull them to sleep, run, run, run and then boom. Once they start sliding and supporting the run, go over the top.’’

Whatever the Jets do, they can’t get down early again. They aren’t built to come back against a solid defense with quarterback Mark Sanchez.

“Sanchez hasn’t proved to be a consistent performer, and if he’s off and then they get down, they just don’t have the capability to come back,’’ one executive said. “You put them in certain situations and Sanchez isn’t on, New England will just capitalize on that again.’’

If the Jets are true to themselves and don’t try to outsmart Belichick, the executives see a much closer game — with the Patriots still coming out on top. Their picks: 28-17, 27-17, and 24-14.

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

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