The New England Patriots have reached week 17 of the 2018 NFL season and what a long, strange trip it’s been. From a 1-2 start, a six-game winning streak, losing three of five including back-to-back in December on the road, to last week outlasting an impotent Buffalo Bills offense 24-12 in Tom Brady’s ugliest game of the season (of which there have been a handful to choose from) nothing has been easy or predictable.
The Patriots finally locked up the AFC East for the tenth consecutive season and the 16th of 18 seasons since Tom Brady took over as starting quarterback in 2001. This was also the 16th consecutive season with double-digit wins for the Patriots–tying the 49ers who were from the pre-free agency and salary cap era.
New England will try to finish 2018 as the only NFL team to go undefeated at home. At 7-0, they face the 4-11 New York Jets and their (likely) lame-duck head coach Todd Bowles. Bowles is a defensive-minded coach who in four seasons in New York is 24-39 heading into this match-up (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). Other than the surprising ten win 2015 season, the Jets have strung together three straight seasons with double-digit losses.
The Jets are looking to play spoiler against their division rival as the Patriots still have playoff implications in week 17. New England needs to win to lock up a bye in the Wild Card round and a much needed week of rest for their 41-year-old quarterback. In addition, a Jets win and a Houston win over Jacksonville sets up the Patriots playing next week against the winner of Sunday night’s Indianapolis-Tennessee game.
The Patriots can still amazingly clinch home-field advantage as the number one seed. New England needs the Denver Broncos to upset the Los Angeles Chargers at Mile High (unlikely) and then the Oakland Raiders to go into Arrowhead and defeat the Chiefs (very unlikely). With either the Chiefs or Chargers waiting as the number five seed as the Wild Card, the Patriots may be best served winning against New York and staying right where they are as the number two seed.
This week’s game will be broadcast by CBS and can be seen locally on WBZ-TV Channel 4 in the greater Boston area and and on WPRI Channel 12 in southeastern Massachusetts and the greater Providence area. Ian Eagle will once again handle play-by-play duties with Hall-of-Fame quarterback and Hall-of-Shame announcer Dan Fouts as the color analyst. Evan Washburn will work from the sideline
Locally, the New England Patriots are on the radio on 41 stations throughout the six states in New England, New York and Florida and will feature broadcasters Bob Socci doing play-by-play and local media member and former Patriots backup quarterback and local talk radio personality Scott Zolak adding color analysis.
Each week the game comes down to the match-ups. These are the top match-ups on defense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win over the Bills was more on the Buffalo offense’s inability to string together even the slightest semblance of a drive on offense with a team lacking skill position players other than at quarterback. The New England defense held the Bills scoreless in the first half and despite their own weak offense, the only Buffalo touchdown came with just over a minute to play and the Patriots ahead by three scores.
The New England defense had been solid much of the second-half of the season. They shut down the Bills rushing attack and contained quarterback Josh Allen and did not allow him to hurt them with his legs. The defense held an opponent to 17 or fewer points for the fourth time in five games (let’s all pretend that fiasco in Miami was a dream temporarily in the top ten in the NFL in points allowed but has slipped down to 13th in points allowed and 23rd in yards allowed.
The defense was excellent on third downs (Buffalo was only two of 12 in conversions) and they are now 18th in the league in third down defense allowing their opponents to convert 39.1% of the time (72 of 184).
How do the Patriots plan to continue their defensive momentum against red hot Sam Darnold and lock up a week off by defeating a New York Jets team with nothing to lose in week 17?
TAKE AWAY ROBBY ANDERSON:
The Patriots catch a break with the Jets banged-up on offense. Wide receivers Jermaine Kearse (37 receptions for 371 yards) and Quincy Enunwa (38 receptions for 449 yards) have both been ruled out for Sunday’s game. That leaves the Jets with Robby Anderson, tight end Christopher Herndon, and, well, uhh, let’s see…Deontay Burnett, Charone Peake, and special teams ace Andre Roberts.
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Despite the lack of talent around him, quarterback Sam Darnold has elevated his play. Since returning from injury in week 14, his quarterback rating has gone up from 83.7, to 100.0, and last week to 128.4. It is no coincidence that Anderson’s production has peaked in turn gaining 76, then 96 and then 140 yards in those three games with a touchdown catch in each game.
Fortunately for New England, they have the perfect antidote to long, lean and speedy undrafted free agent from Temple in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore has the length to match-up with Anderson and the quickness and savvy to stay with him. Earlier this season, Gilmore stayed with Anderson primarily and only allowed one reception for 17 yards on four targets with a pass break-up and interception (per Doug Kyed at NESN).
Anderson has had the full attention of the Patriots’ secondary with just nine receptions in five career games and no touchdowns. Last year, he was targeted 15 times in two games and had just five receptions for 78 yards. His totals earlier this season (two catches on five targets for 22 yards) was one of his least productive performances this season.
With undrafted free agent rookie J.C. Jackson stepping up his game in the second half of 2018, expect Jackson to get some valuable experience against Anderson. If the Patriots can keep Anderson under control, they can devote additional resources in the secondary to slowing the Jets’ other threat–tight end Christopher Herndon.
There is one other thing the Patriots’ defense must do against the Jets’ offense this week:
STUFF THE RUN:
The Patriots’ defense had been anemic against the run for three consecutive weeks getting steamrolled by the Steelers, gashed by the Dolphins, and the Vikings started the carnage by gaining 95 yards on just 13 carries. New England was able to turn it around last week against a Bills team desperately looking to run the football.
The Bills were held to just 72 yards rushing on 18 carries, a 4.0 yards per rush average. That said, in the first half while Buffalo was trying to establish the run, they had just 37 yards on 13 carries, a 2.8 yards per rush average. The Bills rushed just five times in the second half while attempting 25 passes–definitely not how they drew up the game plan.
The Jets lack the talent to rush the ball effectively–they have just 1,518 yards rushing (24th in the NFL) and average just 3.9 yards per attempt (30th). With Isaiah Crowell (685 yards rushing) and Bilal Powell (343 yards rushing) on injured reserve, the Jets have turned to 2017 sixth-round draft pick Elijah McGuire.
McGuire is barely adequate, as evidenced by his 18 rushes for 42 yards versus Houston in week 15 and 35 yards on 14 carries last week. The Jets have three offensive linemen on injured reserve which has been a large reason why their running backs have not had space to run. The Jets have rushed for more than 100 yards once as a team in their last nine games and not surprisingly have lost eight of nine.
The Jets have Kelvin Beachum at left tackle and Brian Winters at right guard–the rest of the offensive line is patchwork. New England brought back Danny Shelton to split snaps with Adam Butler, Malcom Brown, and Lawrence Guy in the trenches last week and they dominated up front. That group must do the same this week against the Jets.
The game plan on defense is simple for the Patriots: keep Robbie Anderson from hurting them with big chunk plays down the field. In addition, the Jets will try to test the Patriots’ suspect rushing defense early and often to control the clock. If the Patriots can limit big plays and make the Jets one-dimensional, their defensive resurgence should continue.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01