Surprising 3-2 Jets preparing to play Patriots for 1st place

New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown, right, hands off the ball to running back Bilal Powell during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)
Jets quarterback Josh McCown, right, hands off the ball to running back Bilal Powell during the first half of Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns. –David Richard / AP

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NEW YORK (AP) — Surprise, surprise. The New York Jets are playing for first.

No, not the No. 1 draft pick — as so many predicted. But for the top spot in the AFC East, with a matchup against the rival New England Patriots on tap for Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

Both teams are 3-2, with the Patriots’ struggles nearly as stunning as the Jets’ early-season success. But Todd Bowles knows better than to take Bill Belichick’s bunch lightly.

“Well, they’re scary because they’re still winning,” the Jets coach said during a conference call Monday. “They are still the same Patriots. You have to knock them off the ladder. They are kings of the division right now. They won the Super Bowl.

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“We have to come out and work on us and play hard and go into the game and try and compete and win.”

The Jets have done that the past three weeks, rolling to a dominant victory against Miami and then pulling off close wins against Jacksonville and Cleveland.

Still, New York recognizes it has quite a few flaws, with penalties a major issue.

“It’s good to get a win on the road, but obviously we have to correct a lot of things on both sides of the ball,” Bowles said. “And we have to get the penalties down, which keeps hampering us every week, which has to change.”

The Jets have been penalized 19 times in their last two games, including nine in the 17-14 win at Cleveland.

“Some of them are ticky-tacky, some of them are legit and some of them you can question,” Bowles said. “But either way, we have to get them down.”

The defense has also struggled to get to the quarterback, with New York’s seven sacks ranking second to last in the NFL through five games. Only Tampa Bay, with four, has less. The Jets also gave up 140 yards against the Browns, a week after allowing 175 to the Jaguars.

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“We’re building that unity and playing for each other,” defensive lineman Leonard Williams said. “But at the same time, we feel that we didn’t play up to our standards that we’ve seen on film — speaking for my position and our defense, specifically.”

New York’s offense had a rough day generating much of anything against the Browns until late, going 4 of 12 on third downs and gaining 212 yards compared to Cleveland’s 419.

“We started slow,” quarterback Josh McCown said. “They mixed the looks, they did a good job of doing some different things and we had some penalties early and kind of got behind the sticks the second drive out there and that really killed that one. So we have to start faster.”

The Jets were able to capitalize, though, on mistakes by the Browns, who squandered four scoring opportunities during the first half.

A little luck, maybe, but the Patriots also see a hungry and resilient squad in their division opponents.

“You’ve got to be impressed with what the Jets have done,” Belichick said Monday. “They’ve had three weeks in a row, they’ve played well. … It’s always tough with the Jets and we know it’ll be tough this week.”

The Patriots have won five of the last six meetings, with the Jets’ lone win during that span being a 26-20 overtime victory at home during Bowles’ first season as coach in 2015.

New York knows it could make a huge statement to the entire league if it beats New England, which would also be the Jets’ first four-game winning streak since they won five straight two seasons ago — capped by that last victory over the Patriots.

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New England has allowed a league-high 447.2 yards per game, a stunningly high number for a Belichick-coached defense. That’s 50 yards more per game than the next closest team, Indianapolis (397.4).

“I’m looking at them right now, and this is a good crew,” quarterback Josh McCown insisted. “It’s going to be a tough matchup. They’re always good at game planning and preparing for you and what you do and what you do best, and so it’ll be a fun challenge.”

The Patriots opened as 8-point favorites, which is hardly a surprise. Just a few weeks ago, however, the Jets were probably looked at as certain double-digit underdogs for this matchup.

From the coaches to the players, New York has stressed a sense of unity that has only grown stronger with every victory. And each win has all that preseason talk about being a front-runner for the No. 1 overall draft pick next April fading fast.

“It’s a wave right now,” Williams said. “We’re on that unity wave of being with each other and playing for each other and playing hard and fast. We’ve just got to keep riding that wave.”

NOTES: Bowles said RB Bilal Powell is day to day with a strained calf, although his status for Sunday is uncertain. … RB Matt Forte remains sidelined with turf toe, which means rookie Elijah McGuire could start against the Patriots if neither Forte nor Powell can play. Bowles said the Jets weren’t yet considering adding another running back to the roster.

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