If nothing else, those New York Jets sure are great at filling newspaper columns, talk radio shows and the blogosphere with material to gossip and argue about before big games. Between Rex Ryan saying this Sunday’s AFC Divisional Playoff battle between his team and the Patriots is “personal” (just as it was “personal” last week in last week’s Wild Card playoff win against Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts) and being a Joe Namath wannabe in pronouncing that the Jets will win the game, and Antonio Cromartie calling Tom Brady an “a**hole” out of the blue, it’s clear that the word modesty is not in that team’s vocabulary.
On the other hand, aside from Wes Welker’s subtle (and hilarious) mocking of Jets coach Rex Ryan’s foot fetishes in a recent press conference, the New England Patriots have pretty much stayed away from any hint of trash talk and bulletin board material (as they always do) and instead focused on the task at hand: beating the hell out of the Jets again.
The two AFC East rivals split the 2010 regular season matchups, with the Jets beating the Pats in week two 28-14 and Pats returning the favor in December with a shellacking 45-3 victory. But, the Patriots are undefeated against the Jets in their short playoff history, going 2-0 against them (December 1985 and January 2007) coming into Sunday’s game.
The Patriots are clearly playing its best football of the year, while the Jets, led by second year quarterback Mark Sanchez (who is dealing with a bad arm), have regressed a bit since the early part of the season. The one thing they have going for them is that Rex Ryan is already the most successful head coach in Jets playoff history, with four victories between last postseason and the current one.
The Patriots, especially on defense, are a relatively young bunch, and having been blown out of last year’s playoffs in round one by Baltimore and absent from the previous postseason (2008-2009) due to Brady’s year-long injury, that also means the Jets collectively have the edge on them in recent postseason experience and success. Then again, the Patriots have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, both of whom can decorate their hands with multiple Super Bowl rings.
What the Pats also have going for them that the Jets (and most other teams) don’t is that they are 5-0 when coming off of first round playoff byes, and each time has headed to a Super Bowl appearance. Combine that with the fact that the Pats hardly ever lose at home, and you have to give them the advantage in this game, which Rex Ryan has called the second-most important game in Jets history behind its 17-6 Super Bowl III win over the Baltimore Colts.
The only concern New England fans should have are on the injry front. One of the team’s best pass rushers, Mike Wright, is done for the year after not being able to recover from a concussion earlier in the season, and right now, it has six players listed as “Questionable” for Sunday’s game. Reliable rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, veteran WR Deion Branch and last year’s team sack leader Tully Banta-Cain are among them.
For the Jets, only three players are “Questionable,” including cornerback/nickelback Drew Coleman, who didn’t practice Friday after injuring his knee during Thursday’s practice. The only other big Jets name on the January 14 injury report is ace returner and wide receiver Brad Smith, who had limited practice time due to a groin pull. Both will be game-time decisions, according to Ryan. (Damien Woody was ruled out earlier in the week as well).
The other concern for the Patriots is the long two-week layoff between its last regular season game and tomorrow’s game. Yet, this time is likely beneficial to the likes of the injured players, and gives Brady and company more time to study the Jets’ tendencies and game film. And usually, that combination of homework and (just enough) health pays off for the Pats.
No matter who is out there, the Pats have proven they can win, and win big this year. But it all comes down to the running game and who controls the ball for the most time. If LaDainian Tomlinson and young stud Shonn Greene can get the Jets running game off to a good start and help Sanchez keep drives going for long periods of time, that could keep Pats possessions to a minimum and increase the Jets chances of pulling off an upset.
The Patriots have proven in recent weeks they can succeed on the ground as well as in the air, with its latest 1,000-yard rusher BenJarvus Green-Ellis being the most critical part of the Patriots offense now not named Brady. The better he and Danny Woodhead run, the more successful Brady’s play-action passes and other medium-range throws to the likes of Welker, tight end Rob Gronkowski and other offensive weapons will be.
I don’t expect another blowout win for the Patriots, but with all the time they have to get healthy, study their butts off and previous success of late, I expect a reasonably close game and win. With the Pats having a superior, MVP-level QB and a young defense that has come on strong of late, allowing just 10 or fewer points to opponents in four of the last five games (compared to a Jets defense that has Darrelle Revis and Cromartie but is missing key figure Jim Leonhard), a close finish would be surprising.
Now, let the countdown to kickoff begin!
Photo credit: thirtysecondsurvey.com