The New England Patriots came from behind to deliver a crushing blow to the playoff hopes of the Buffalo Bills outscoring them 24-0 to end the game. The Patriots won 37-16 with Dion Lewis leading the way with 129 yards on the ground and a rushing and receiving touchdown. Tom Brady passed for 224 yards and a pair of touchdowns as Rob Gronkowski led the way with five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Their week 17 opponent in the final game of the 2017 regular season is coming off their third straight loss, and fifth out of their last six. The New York Jets lost to the Chargers 14-7 last weekend, failing to gain 300 yards of total offense for the third straight game. The offense has sputtered without quarterback Josh McCown and the team has limped to the finish line in 2017.
This is the final divisional game for the Patriots in 2017. Last season, the Patriots finished with a 5-1 record against division foes after dropping their week four match-up to the Buffalo Bills in their final game before Tom Brady returned from his ridiculous “Deflategate” suspension. This season they are 4-1 with just a loss to Miami 27-20 in week 14. Per Patriots.com, New England is an NFL-best 80-23 (.777 winning percentage) in regular season AFC East games since Tom Brady took over at quarterback in the 2001 season, which is the best intra-division record of any team in the NFL in that time span.
This week’s match-up will be broadcast by CBS as usual and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in Boston and on WPRI Channel 12 in Providence and in southern New England. Once again the Patriots will draw the top duo at CBS as Jim Nantz will handle play-by-play duties with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as the color analyst. Tracy Wolfson will work the sidelines.
On the radio, the Patriots’ flagship station 98.5 FM the Sports Hub will carry the game on the Patriots Radio Network. The Patriots are on the radio on 40 stations throughout the nation and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak adding color. In New York, the Jets are on 98.7 FM WEPN as ESPN Radio play-by-play man Bob Wischusen and analyst Marty Lyons reach Patriots Nation in western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Now that you know how to watch and listen to the game, here are the five key match-ups to watch that will determine if the Patriots continue their winning ways against the New York Jets or if Bryce Petty will pull off the upset.
1. NE RB Dion Lewis vs NYJ ILB Demario Davis
Dion Lewis has slowly expanded his role since the middle of October as he has slid into the role as the primary (or more primary than the other running backs) rusher. He leads the team with 803 yards rushing this season (after coming into the season with 688 career yards rushing). Lewis is coming on strong after having just 46 yards rushing with just 12 attempts in the first four games of the season (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
In games five through 11 Lewis expanded his role in the running game for the Patriots rushing for 340 yards in those six games (56.6 yards per game). In the last five games Lewis has cemented his role as the primary back rushing for 112 yards in the first game against Miami, 92 yards in the first Buffalo game, only 17 yards in Miami on Monday night (which led the team as Josh McDaniels abandoned the running game early), 67 yards against Pittsburgh and 129 yards last week against the Bills.
With Rex Burkhead out until the playoffs at the earliest with a knee injury, Lewis has had to pick up the load. Add in injuries to James White and Mike Gillislee and there are not enough healthy bodies at the position. Lewis played 51 snaps (72 percent of the offensive snaps), easily his season high last week.
With New England focused on a balanced attack on offense that requires the Jets to try to respect the running game. In week six, the Patriots rushed 25 times for 118 yards against the Jets with Lewis and Gillislee combining for 96 of those yards. The Jets were second in the NFL in 2015 in rushing yards allowed, dropping to 11th last year, and have continued their drop to 19th in 2017 with one week left in the season.
The Jets have allowed 109 yards or more rushing in four of the last five weeks. Last week Melvin Gordon piled up 81 yards on 19 carries and added a touchdown. The defense was again without defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson who has not played the last two weeks due to disciplinary reasons. The primary run-stopper is going to be inside linebacker Demario Davis.
Davis is one of the more underrated inside linebackers in the league and was deserving of a Pro Bowl spot this season. He leads the Jets with 124 tackles (he also leads the team with five sacks). He–unlike fellow inside linebacker Darron Lee–has the instincts and experience to sniff out the running back and shed blockers to make the necessary play.
Davis is fitting in well with New York this season after spending a year in purgatory…I mean Cleveland. The advanced statistics back him up as ProFootballFocus has him with an 85.4 overall grade as a run defender ranking him ninth of 93 linebackers. He will have to be at his best with the elusive Dion Lewis running the ball on Sunday.
2. NE TE Rob Gronkowski vs NYJ ILB Darron Lee and S Jamal Adams
The other inside linebacker for the Jets will have another tough assignment this week. In addition to trying to contain running back Dion Lewis in the rushing and passing game, Darron Lee is going to have to play a key role in trying to slow down tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Rookie safety Jamal Adams–who has already shown in his first 15 games why he was a bargain as the sixth-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft–will be there to help out in coverage of the best tight end in the NFL. The Jets will likely have Adams lined up opposite Gronkowski in obvious passing situations and when he flexes out, but on running downs and double tight end alignments Lee is likely to be covering Gronkowski.
In the first match-up in week six, Lee and particularly Adams had some strong plays in coverage but Gronkowski caught six of ten targets for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. It was a “Welcome to the NFL, kid” kind of day for Adams. Lee was limited in coverage of Gronkowski in the first game as the Jets were able to dictate their match-ups well.
Unlike in week six when Gronkowski was just coming off the injury report, he has been healthy down the stretch (and on cue I jinxed him and he missed practice with an illness). Gronkowski has played in 13 games (injury versus Tampa Bay and one-game suspension against Miami) and has 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns. He is averaging a ‘gaudy’ 15.7 yards per catch.
At full strength, he has been near impossible to slow down, let alone stop. He continues to run precise routes, use his athleticism and size to wall off defenders and his brute strength to pick-up extra yards after the catch. Adams is extremely strong, fast, and athletic and gives the Jets the best bet to slow the New England tight end. Lee is bigger but lacks the coverage skills to stay with Gronkowski.
The Jets will try and slow Gronkowski with the impressive Jamal Adams (who, based on pure talent rather than position should have been the first pick or second pick in the NFL Draft). However, there are few teams that have effectively slowed down a healthy Rob Gronkowski and this match-up could be the most important of the day for the young and aggressive Jets defense.
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3. NYJ TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins vs NE S Patrick Chung
On the other side of the ball, the Jets have found a receiving threat in tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Scooped up off the scrap heap when Tampa Bay gave up on him after his numerous off-field issues (alcohol and personal issues and a two-game suspension to open 2017). Under new offensive coordinator John Morton the Jets were able to utilize the talents of the 2014 second-round draft pick as he developed chemistry with quarterback Josh McCown.
Now McCown is out for the season with a broken hand and Seferian-Jenkins has struggled with extra attention each week. In his last five games, Seferian-Jenkins has just 11 catches for 69 yards and no touchdowns as teams have been ready for him. He has been strictly an outlet recently as Seferian-Jenkins has been an outlet option and running underneath routes, rarely stretching the field with downfield routes.
While inside linebacker Kyle Van Noy questionable to play, safety Patrick Chung should again be the primary man in coverage of the New York tight end. Chung had been up-and-down in coverage of tight ends this season with strong performances alternating with him being overmatched in coverage. Seferian-Jenkins had a season-high eight catches for 46 yards and a touchdown in the first match-up (and another touchdown overturned as a game-changing fumble and touchback).
Seferian-Jenkins is extremely athletic but still not a complete receiver with high-level route-running concepts. He is questionable for Sunday with foot and rib injuries and missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday. If he cannot go it is a big loss for the Jets as they only have Eric Tomlinson and Neal Sterling behind him on the depth chart.
This is a match-up that could be a headache for New England if quarterback Bryce Petty is able to find Seferian-Jenkins is able to convert a few third downs and extend drives for the Jets.
4. NYJ WR Jermaine Kearse, ArDarius Stewart, Chad Hansen and Robby Anderson vs NE CB Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, and Malcolm Butler
Against the Jets in week six, quarterback Josh McCown passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns leading the Jets to a 14-0 lead before Tom Brady led the Patriots back to win 24-17. In that game, he found wide receiver Jermaine Kearse for four catches for 76 yards. Kearse–well known to the Patriots and Malcolm Butler for his acrobatic catch on his back on the tipped pass at the five-yard line with just over a minute to play in Super Bowl 49–was acquired with a second-round draft pick for the disgruntled defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from Seattle.
Only 27 years-old, Kearse was starting to get squeezed out of playing time by the young receivers in Seattle. In New York, he has taken pressure off younger receivers ArDarius Stewart, Chad Hansen and Robby Anderson. Kearse had 60 receptions for 751 yards and five touchdowns–all career highs.
Meanwhile, Anderson has thrived and has 62 catches for 939 yards and seven touchdowns. It has been a breakout season for the second-year undrafted free agent from Temple. At six-foot-three and 190 pounds, the lanky wide receiver will likely see a heavy dose of Stephon Gilmore or Eric Rowe (who missed the first match-up) during the week seventeen game.
Kearse is six-foot-one and 212 pounds and will likely draw the similarly sized Stephon Gilmore or Eric Rowe in coverage when lining up outside and draw Malcolm Butler when he slides inside to the slot when the Jets go to their three wide receiver package. The Patriots catch a break with third-year quarterback Bryce Petty in at quarterback for the injured Josh McCown. Petty has completed just 47 percent of his passes in two-plus games and has three interceptions and one touchdown.
The New England pass defense has improved after a horrendous start to the season. Gilmore has been much improved at cornerback after a rough start and with more ‘man-to-man’ coverage he is in the right coverage and the communication is not an issue. He is tall, has long arms, is strong and aggressive, has excellent makeup speed, and can track the ball well in the air. He should match-up well with Kearse and Anderson.
Stewart is the wild card as he has not played much this season until recently. The Jets’ third-round draft pick out of Alabama, he has not caught a pass since week ten despite an increase in snaps played over those weeks. Fourth-round draft pick Chad Hansen has passed him in playing time but has struggled to produce as well. Hansen has just five receptions for 46 yards in his last five games.
Having Eric Rowe back is a big plus for the Patriots. Despite some struggles against the Steelers’ high-powered attack in week 15, the Patriots pass defense has not allowed over 300 total yards passing (total yards passing subtracts yards lost due to sacks) since the first Jets game in week six. At that time, it was the fifth such 300+ yards passing game allowed out of six (the Texans had over 290 total yards passing in that one game in week three) and to have shut down nine straight opponents from getting more than 270 total yards since that game.
5. NE EDGE Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise and Eric Lee vs NYJ LT Kelvin Beachum and RT Brandon Shell
The addition of former Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher has dominated headlines this week but the Patriots will likely have on the field for just a handful of snaps, if any, on Sunday. The Patriots’ pass rush was stuck in neutral without Trey Flowers but his return to the defense after missing a couple of games has let the Patriots play Wise and Lee in a rotation rather than both playing much of the game.
This week the Patriots face the Bryce Petty and the Jets and with Petty’s lack of mobility and poor performance under pressure. Last week the Jets had to face the most dynamic pass rush duo in the NFL with San Diego’s pair of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The Jets allowed three sacks but none of them to Bosa or Ingram.
The Jets brought in a new pair of tackles for 2017 by signing veteran left tackle Kelvin Beachum (who was let go by the Steelers and then the Jaguars after failing to stay healthy and perform to expectations the past two seasons) and Brandon Shell (the great-nephew of Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell), who had limited playing time in the second half of 2016 after being a fifth-round draft pick last year.
Beachum has been adequate, but his injuries over the past few seasons have robbed his athleticism and quickness. He gets by on veteran savvy and is solid except when his hands get low and then he can be overpowered.
Shell is big and very strong but inexperienced. His technique has improved as he has played more but he gets a lot of help from running backs and tight ends. He is not consistent throughout the game and his footwork (or lack thereof) puts him on his heels and unbalanced against speed rushers.
Neither tackle is elite, which is good for New England since they desperately lack that elite pass rusher. Trey Flowers has been impressive in both setting the edge in the run game and getting to the quarterback and leads the team with 6.5 sacks while rookie Deatrich Wise is third with five sacks. Eric Lee had given the defense a boost and has 2.5 sacks but has been shutout in the past three games.
This is a match-up of an average pass rush against an average pair of pass protectors. Something’s got to give. If the Patriots can get consistent pressure on Petty, it can take some pressure off their secondary and allow them to get off the field and give their offense some extra chances to find the end zone.
–Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01.