Patriots

4 things to watch in second Patriots-Jets matchup

The Patriots should be able to beat the Jets at home in Week 7. But there are still some questions about the team that need to be answered.

Patriots Rhamondre Stevenson
Rhamondre Stevenson. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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The Patriots had little trouble dispatching the New York Jets in Week 2 after a crushing season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins.

New England hopes the Jets will help wash out the taste of defeat once again in Week 7 as the Patriots face their division rivals at home after losing to the Dallas Cowboys in frustrating fashion last weekend.

The cast of characters and storylines will more or less be the same going into Patriots-Jets Round 2, headlined by the “battle” between first-round rookie quarterbacks Mac Jones and Zach Wilson.

But New York has actually pulled off a surprising win since then, knocking off the 4-2 Tennessee Titans before falling in a close game to the 2-3 Atlanta Falcons.

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The Patriots, meanwhile, had to come back to beat the one-win Houston Texans before failing to upset the Cowboys in overtime last weekend.

Conventional wisdom says New England remains the better team and should easily handle the Jets at home. But in the midst of a roller-coaster of a season and with a laundry list of players on the injury report this week, the Patriots might have their work cut out for them more than one would expect.

Will the Patriots let Mac Jones off the leash?

Taking it easy with Jones against the Jets in his second NFL start, especially after the beating he took in his debut, was totally understandable.

In Week 7, though, there’s little point to playing it safe with him. He’s proven he can handle it.

Jones has adapted to withering pressure from some of the most aggressive teams in the league and delivered against winning teams when the Patriots needed it — even if the team couldn’t pull off the win.

What’s more, he had his best game of the season throwing the football down the field against the Cowboys, going 4-for-4 on passes traveling further than 20 yards.

Jones still has some arm-strength limitations, but he’s generally overcome them with great timing and good ball placement. He also did a better job last week of not putting the ball into harm’s way; even his late pick-six, as receiver Kendrick Bourne admitted, wasn’t entirely on the quarterback.

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The Patriots aren’t the dominating defense/ball-control offense combo everyone thought they’d be this season. Playing conservatively has likely cost New England in every loss in 2021, with its win over the Texans possibly coming because the team had no choice but to let Jones try to win them the game — which he did.

Rather than put the ball in Jones’s hands reluctantly, perhaps it’s time they empowered him to take more control, especially in a winnable game against an inferior opponent.

Can the Patriots stop the run this time?

Arguably the most surprising part of the first Patriots-Jets contest was how well New York ran the ball against what was supposed to be a revamped defense upfront. What’s more, they did it without injured starting tackle Mekhi Becton.

The Jets and their stable of running backs you’ve never heard of still own the highest rushing yards total (152) of the season against the Patriots. That’s right: more than the Saints, which employs Alvin Kamara, and the Cowboys duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.

Obviously, getting gashed in the run game didn’t hurt their chances of winning too badly. The Jets only scored six points and turned the ball over four times (all interceptions by Wilson).

But you can’t always count on the other team giving you the ball that many times (even the Jets). If the Patriots struggle to stop the run again, New York, which has scored more than 20 points in its last two games, will start to cash in.

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On the flip side, New England doing its job in the run game will put more pressure on the Jets’ passing offense to win the day. That leads into the next point…

Will the defense get to Zach Wilson again?

Wilson has thrown at least one interception in every game he’s played in this season, which isn’t surprising given his play style. But he’s only thrown one pick in each of his last two games after throwing seven in his first three games (four of which came against the Patriots).

Baby steps, right?

The odds are, of course, that Wilson will throw the Patriots’ defense at least one ball Sunday. He’s still a rookie quarterback with a lot to learn, and Bill Belichick’s defensive game plan will likely contain a few surprises.

That said, New England’s pass defense has been taken out behind the woodshed the last two weeks, giving up 757 passing yards and six touchdowns in that span. 312 yards and three of those touchdowns came at the hands of the Texans’ Davis Mills, who simply isn’t very good.

Look for Wilson to avoid throwing to J.C. Jackson, who picked him twice in their first matchup, as much this weekend in favor of targeting whoever’s playing across from him. Jalen Mills has had a solid year overall but struggled last week, so he might see more action than usual.

Is this Rhamondre Stevenson’s time to shine?

Damien Harris remains the lead man in the Patriots’ backfield and has seemingly regained his footing after a tough couple of weeks on the ground. He also put up his most memorable play of the season in that first game against the Jets in Week 2, barreling through defenders on a 27-yard touchdown run.

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But he wasn’t the only back who had a good game against New York that day. James White also had 65 total yards, including a touchdown run and a 28-yard catch and run on a screen pass.

With White out for the season, Stevenson has a chance to fill that change-of-pace role behind Harris.

Though the big rookie back also runs with a sledgehammer mentality, Stevenson has better hands than Harris and is more shifty in the open field, making him dangerous in space. Provided the 2021 fourth-round pick can continue his improvement in pass protection and hold on to the football, he’ll keep getting opportunities over Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor on passing downs.

He’s gained 85 yards on 19 touches the last two weeks, averaging 4.6 yards per carry against Dallas and catching three passes for 39 yards. The offensive coaching staff has also given him opportunities to spell Harris early in games — a sign of growing trust.

This Jets could offer a chance to rack up more yards and another touchdown for his rookie highlight reel.

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