The New England Patriots and New York Jets face off for the 104th time in their heated rivalry; one filled with many tight contests and a genuine dislike for the opposing team.
The New England Patriots sit in an unfamiliar place as they enter play on Sunday. Not only are the Patriots in first place but they are also in last place as all four teams in the division (as well as three other teams in the AFC) enter Week 7 with an identical 3-3 record. Of all the teams with a .500 record this season, New England has the widest margin of victory (51 points) in large part due to a balanced offensive attack that ranks first in points scored and total yardage gained.
Of all the teams with a 3-3 record, the Patriots place among the many comes as the biggest surprise. For a team that entered the season fresh off of a Super Bowl appearance, this season brought with it high expectations for a high playoff seed and another shot at the fourth Lombardi trophy. Though the Patriots have lost three games, the total margin of victory for their conqueror has been four total points, with two of the losses coming at the hands of NFC teams.
What has hampered the Patriots thus far in 2012 is a lack of offensive consistency along with a defensive secondary that has been burned for large yardage gains on several occasions. At times the offense looks unstoppable; capable of scoring at will with an efficient and balanced passing game coupled with a newly established running game that has evaded the Patriots in recent seasons. On other occasions, the team appears to be one-dimensional, relying too much on their prolific passing game at the expense of controlling time of possession. Fans need not look further than last Sunday, where a challenged running game was scrapped early in the contest; forcing Brady to throw the ball for a personal-high 58 times.
While New England has proven competent in containing opposing rushing attacks, the ineptness of their secondary against large pass gains has proven to be problematic. In last week's loss in Seattle, the Patriots allowed several deep passes; leading to the team surrendering a 13-point fourth quarter lead against one of the NFLs more anemic passing teams.
In this season's second divisional contest the Patriots face a team that offers a remedy for some of their issues. A team that has put a greater focus on establishing a running game faces off with a defense that allows 150.5 ground yards per contest. With the league's fifth leading rusher (Stevan Ridley) likely to get the bulk of the carries in Week 6, the Jets will be challenged to force New England into a one-dimensional game plan for a second straight week.
If the Patriots find themselves in long yardage passing situations, they will be facing a defense that has allowed the sixth fewest passing yards (207.9 yards per game). This effective pass defense can be attributed more to opponents exploiting their inept run defense more than the talent in the secondary; as their play comes without one of the game's best cover corners (Darrelle Revis) who is out for the season with a knee injury. The Patriots' offensive line has been challenged in the season's early going, surrendering 13 sacks to Tom Brady. Minimizing the pass rush will be key for the Patriots as the perennial Pro Bowl quarterback has looked uneasy at times this season, dancing around in the pocket and forcing pass attempts.
The Jets enter Sunday"s tilt with an offense that will rely on a self-proclaimed "ground and "pound" approach, with Shonne Greene being the primary focus of the attack. In the Jets' Week 5 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, the Jets benefited from 161 yards and three touchdowns from Greene in the 35-9 rout. Prior to Week 5, Greene managed to gain just 217 yards on 76 attempts and one touchdown.
Whether Greene will be as effective against a better run defense than the 29th ranked Colts will go a long way in determining a winner. For the season, the Patriots have surrendered just 82.7 rushing yards per game including only two games with opponents gaining greater than 100 yards against them.
While the New England secondary should welcome facing off with an under-performing passing game, they found themselves in a similar situation last week with disastrous results. Whether the Jets and their shallow corps of receivers can succeed as the Seahawks did last week by taking advantage of New England"s glaring defensive weaknesses will be a key in determining a victor on Sunday.
Since their first contest in 1960, the Jets and Patriots have faced off 103 times, with New England holding a razor-thin 53-52-1 series lead. The historic match-ups between the Patriots and Jets tend to be always competitive, regardless of the team's current standing. With both teams dealing with their own individual short-comings, the likelihood of another close game is likely.
The Jets' inability to stop the run and lack of pass rush will provide Brady and Company ample opportunities to exploit their opponent's defensive vulnerabilities. An early New England lead will force the Jets' 30th ranked passing attack to put the ball in the air. How the Patriots' secondary can minimize long drives on the part of the Jets will be a determining factor in the game's winner.
The current double-digit point spread is not truly indicative of the true nature of this rivalry. This game will ultimately be a tight contest entering the fourth quarter, with New England scoring a touchdown late in the game to secure a comfortable victory.
New York Jets 17
New England Patriots 27
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime