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 offense that will determine if the Patriots are the team which emerges victorious on Sunday.
The win against the Bills ended the second two game losing streak in 2018 for the Patriots. New England’s 273 yards rushing was easily their highest output this season. The Patriots’ offense that was ranked 25th in the NFL in points scored after week three is now eighth in the NFL with 398 points scored through 15 games.
Coming out of week three, the New England offense ranked 29th in the league on third down percentage converting on just 28.6% of their third downs. The Patriots are now 12th converting 40.5% of third downs for the season. Their Red Zone scoring percentage continues to be a problem (an atrocious one for five scoring touchdowns in the red zone in their last two games) and is now just 57.7% (30 of 52 drives) and good for a middle-of-the-pack 17th in the NFL.
How does New England plan to get back their offensive momentum against the New York Jets as the Patriots try to earn a bye week for the Wild Card round of playoffs again against a Jets’ defense that has not held an opponent under 23 points since week ten.
PRODUCTION AT WIDE RECEIVER:
Just three weeks ago in Miami, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns. In that game, Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman combined for 22 receptions on 29 targets for 289 of those yards. Flash-forward to last week, and Gordon is suspended, Gronkowski had zero receptions versus Buffalo, and no other wide receiver other than Cordarrelle Patterson with one three yard reception had a reception.
Has the New England offense fallen-off so drastically? Yes, the loss of Gordon is a blow to the offense–he was a highly effective receiver both down the field and working the sidelines. Most importantly, he had earned the trust of Tom Brady and Brady was comfortable targeting Gordon on any down.
The Patriots have bodies at wide receiver–the question is can they get the production they need from the position in the playoffs? New England is going to have to make plays off the running game and build a lead against the Jets on Sunday, just like they will have to do in the postseason.
Look for Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett to get a number of snaps at wide receiver versus the Jets this week alongside Julian Edelman. Hogan has never been a primary target of Brady;s until last season when he took over many of the routes run by Edelman early in the season. After his injury, Hogan went back to his regular role as third or fourth option and eventually was able to contribute in the Super Bowl.
The biggest mystery is Dorsett. Just 25 years old, the former first-round draft pick should have been given number 83 as he brings the smaller frame but quickness and deceptive speed of former Patriots receiver Deion Branch. Dorsett was a solid receiver until Gordon took over his snaps. After disappearing for a stretch, Dorsett looked ready to fill the role of Danny Amendola as the third-down clutch receiver, but again disappeared.
With Cordarrelle Patterson on the injury report having left the Bills game with a knee injury, there is more pressure on Dorsett and Hogan to step up and contribute. They catch a break with the versatile Morris Claiborne out for New York and controversy still swirling around Trumaine Johnson after his disciplinary benching at practice this week.
Without Claiborne it means more playing time for former Patriots seventh-round draft pick Darryl Roberts on the outside opposite Johnson while Buster Skrine renews his rivalry with Edelman in the slot. On third downs, New England may want to gameplan to spread the Jets defense as Green Bay did last week and take advantage of match-ups with Roberts and sixth-round draft pick Parry Nickerson.
That is only part of the offensive game plan–the Patriots also must get the ball actually into the end zone:
RUN, RUN, RUN:
Last week versus Buffalo it took one series for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to realize that the Bills’ number one ranked passing defense was legit. Buffalo’s big nickel with safeties Jordan Poyer, the versatile Micah Hyde and savvy veteran Rafael Bush teamed with second-year star cornerback TreDavious White and undrafted rookie free agent steal Levi Wallace (their version of J.C. Jackson) to stifle a Patriots passing attack.
To combat that smothering coverage (and relentless and underrated pass rush of Lorenzo Alexander and edge rushers Jerry Hughes and Trent Murphy), New England turned to their weapons in the running game. All of their weapons.
The Patriots rushed 47 times for 273 yards as a team (including Brian Hoyer’s kneel-downs). Sony Michel led the way with another impressive performance as the rookie first-round draft pick rushed 18 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. Cordarrelle Patterson revised his role in the backfield and as a jet sweep threat rushing four times for 66 yards.
James White pounded out eight rushes for 41 yards including his 27-yard second quarter touchdown run. Rex Burkhead continued to work off the rust with 13 carries (for only 39 yards) and Phillip Dorsett even had a 17-yard jet sweep (to offset the ugly -4 yard one they ran later in the fourth quarter).
There are going to be games where the passing offense is outmatched and the Patriots do not want to expose Tom Brady to the punishment he would need to take to sit in the pocket and wait for his receivers to get open against stifling pass coverage. While the talking heads have taken aim at the offense, it should be celebrated for being able to adapt and win switching up offensive philosophies. While it seems common here in New England, it is not the norm in the NFL.
New England will not face a secondary or pass rush the caliber of Buffalo’s last week when they play the Jets and should not have to lean on the running game like they did. However, they still want to keep their franchise quarterback healthy as possible heading into the playoffs and will be looking to run against a New York defense that is 26th in rushing yards allowed and allows 4.6 yards per rush.
Veteran nose tackle Steve McLendon is their best run-stopper on the defensive line and they are hoping Leonard Williams refrains from throwing any punches after being ejected last week against Green Bay. Linebacker Avery Williamson (who would have been a fantastic free agent fit in New England, just saying) is the only other impact player on the front seven.
Henry Anderson was a dumpster dive that came up with a productive contributor and third-round draft pick Nathan Shepherd should have been playing more this season. Former third-round draft pick and eternally disappointing Jordan Jenkins, who is unlikely to play against the Patriots.
Otherwise, the Jets have 2016 second-round draft pick disappointment Darron Lee suspended and forcing them to play former Dolphins special teamer Neville Hewitt at his spot. The rest of the front seven consists of cast-offs the Jets took a flier on: former Lions back-up Brandon Copeland, undrafted rookie free agent Frankie Luvu, former Packers back-up Mike Pennel, Ravens washout Bronson Kaufusi, and former Colts third-round pick Tarell Basham would not play significant snaps for any team with NFL-level front seven talent.
The Patriots should be able to run at will against the Jets who allowed 215 yards on the ground to New England in their last match-up. The one strength of the Jets defense has been on third-down, so if New England runs the ball, they should focus on setting up third down and manageable situations.
If the offense can continue to get production on the ground and grind out long drives the New England Patriots should be able to outscore the Jets and wear down their defense. If they can get any kind of rhythm in the passing game would be a huge advantage as well as New York should be vulnerable with a key injury at cornerback.
-Hal Bent is a Staff Writer for Full Press Coverage Sports Media and covers the New England Patriots. Follow him on Twitter @halbent01