Wildcard Preview: New York Jets vs New England Patriots
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 6, 2007
This Sunday, the Wild Card Weekend will continue when Eric Mangini and the New York Jets battle Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. The Patriots have much more veteran experience on their team, but the Jets are looking to be the little team that could. Mangini has gotten his team to play to the best of their ability this season, and although they only defeated one team with a winning record (the Patriots), they took care of business against everyone else. Everyone knows about the coaching rivalry between Mangini and Belichick, but in the end, it'll come down to whether or not the Jets can deliver the same type of effort the last time these two teams met.
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Chad Pennington: 313 of 485 for 3352 yards, 17 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 30 sacks.
Note: Pennington was named the comeback player of the year, and rightly so. Although his numbers look nothing better than average, his play at quarterback helped elevate a team into the playoffs that most people picked as one of the league's worst teams heading into the season. Pennington's key usually comes when he is able to hit the big touch pass down the field to Coles or Cotchery. He won't go for the home run all day long though - most of the time it'll be quick, game-managing passes.
Tom Brady: 319 of 516 for 3529 yards, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 26 sacks.
Note: Although the Patriots didn't go all the way last season, you can't argue with a postseason quarterback that has three Super Bowl rings with many years ahead of him. Brady's numbers this season are particularly impressive, because he has a group of receivers that would rank near the bottom of the league if it wasn't New England's team. Although he didn't play well the last time he faced the Jets, you still have to like his chances in the postseason against a division rival.
Note: The Jets have had a running back by committee system installed this season, with rookie Leon Washington getting most of the work. Washington has performed the best of the three, but overall as a unit, they've been nothing more than average. Sometimes it'll be a case of going with whichever running back seems to be hot. None of the back are an extreme threat in catching the ball out of the backfield, something that the Jets may want to explore against New England.
Corey Dillon: 199 carries, 812 yards, 13 touchdowns, 2 fumbles. 15 catches, 147 yards. Laurence Maroney: 175 carries, 745 yards, 6 touchdowns, 1 fumble. 22 catches, 194 yards, 1 touchdown. Kevin Faulk: 25 carries, 123 yards, 1 touchdown. 43 catches, 356 yards, 2 touchdowns.
Note: Earlier, I mentioned that Brady's success without well-known receivers was unbelievable. However, a lot of his success can be attributed to the play of New England's backfield. Dillon has been the veteran pounder, getting the ball a little more down near the goal line. Maroney has been the energetic rookie who has stepped up his game, and will likely be the team's starting back when Dillon's time is up. Finally, Faulk actually catches the ball a lot, despite being the third back.
Note: The Jets only have two main receiving threats, but that means that they are already leaps and bounds ahead of the Patriots' receivers. Coles and Cotchery have been brilliant for Pennington this season, and have both been able very versatile - they can run after the catch and make the receptions down the field. While Chris Baker isn't a huge threat at the tight end position, he still needs to be accounted for down near the red zone.
Note: Remember the days where Brady had five receivers that he could throw the ball to, and could depend on each of them to come up with the big play, despite the fact that they weren't "big names"? That's basically the case this season as well, except for the fact that the group is thinner than ever before. Caldwell has seen the most action, but on most teams in the NFL, he would be nothing more than a slot receiver. Brady will have to hope that his tight ends step up and have the big postseason games that they are accustomed to.
Note: The Jets defense has certainly exceeded expectations this season, ranking among the best in the league in terms of points allowed. They don't have a lot of turnovers on the stat sheet, but there have been numerous times this season where the unit has stepped up in the clutch, like the last time these two teams met. The team has some quiet playmakers in guys like safety Kerry Rhodes, defensive end Bryan Thomas, and linebacker Victor Hobson. With the weather conditions improved this time though, the Jets will have a tough time getting to Brady on a consistent basis.
Note: The Patriots defense is improved from last year, despite a couple of hits they've taken this season. They lost Junior Seau earlier in the season, and veteran safety Rodney Harrison is out yet again. Asante Samuel was the team's best player in the secondary, recording 10 interceptions on the season. Overall, the Patriots have done an outstanding job at defending the run. Although the Jets' offensive line has done better than people expected, both of their rookies still create some vulnerability that the Patriots will definitely try to exploit.
Justin Miller: 28.3 yards per kick return, 2 touchdowns. Mike Nugent: 24-of-27 in field goals, with a long of 54 yards.
Note: It's not often that you can state that a team other than the Patriots is favored on special teams heading into the postseason. The Jets don't know how Nugent will react in the postseason, but he has been simply brilliant since the first game of the season this year. His accuracy was welcomed well by Jets fans after some questionable kicks back in his rookie season. Justin Miller has run back two kicks for touchdowns this season and was named to the Pro Bowl in the AFC.
Ellis Hobbs: 36.0 yards per kick return, 1 touchdown. Stephen Gostkowski: 20-of-26 in field goals, with a long of 52 yards.
Note: Although Gostkowski has been accurate enough for the Patriots this season, there's no doubt that Bill Belichick would have more faith in his kicking game if he had Vinatieri still. Don't take Hobbs' ridiculous kick return average into consideration too much, because he only started to return kicks near the end of the season, and his numbers were inflated by his one touchdown runback.
New York Jets
New England Patriots
Pennington definitely stepped his game up this season with his job in question before the start of the season. He has had some postseason success before, but it's hard to say whether that can carry over from a few seasons ago. The thing that will carry over is Pennington's victory the last time he faced the Patriots, in New England. It is worth noting that the weather was horrible in that game, which was a big reason the Patriots struggled to get things going in the first place.
One of the reason the Jets aren't getting a whole lot of respect in this game is the fact that they really don't have a No. 1 running back. Although Leon Washington has shown some positive signs, he's no Curtis Martin at this point. The Patriots defend the run very well, which will only put more pressure on a young group of backs playing their first postseason game.
No matter what happens, the Jets have to find a way to get under Tom Brady's skin. It won't do the Jets defense any good if they simply focus on shutting down the passing game though, because the Patriots will just attack the Jets poor run defense all game long. The Jets have to blitz Brady at the appropriate time, not necessarily to sack him, but to force his timing to be off with his receivers. The defense must keep the game close though, because if they can't, then the Jets will be kept off guard due to the amount of freedom Brady will have offensively.
Tom Brady has three Super Bowl rings, but if he makes it this year, he'll have to deliver his best performance yet. The Jets seem like a rather easy opponent on paper due to the schedule they faced this season, but Brady knows that he was beaten up the last time he played them. Brady doesn't have guys like Deion Branch or David Givens to throw to anymore, but he still has to have faith in the receivers that are on the field. He has managed a 12-4 record with what he's had, and that's damn good.
Not many teams have been able to shut down both Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney this season, but the x-factor could be veteran running back Kevin Faulk. Faulk makes a lot of catches out of the backfield, and may as well be considered just as important of a receiver than anyone else on the Patriots' roster. Still, New England shouldn't have an issue with incorporating both Dillon and Maroney into the game, as they've been able to do it most of the season. Dillon will see more action down near the goal line.
The Patriots had what I like to call a "quiet" season on defense, but that's not a bad thing by any means. They did a tremendous job most of the season, and could turn out to be the unit that really catches teams off guard down the stretch. The team would've loved to have Rodney Harrison back on the field, but with how often he has been injured over the past two seasons, they will already be prepared for his absence. New England shouldn't have too big of an issue at stopping the Jets' running game, so keying in on Pennington will be their primary focus.
AFC Wildcard Prediction
Winner - New England Patriots
Maybe I'm simply going with the crowd here and taking the expected victor, but I just don't feel comfortable selecting the Jets. I'm very intrigued by the third battle of the season between Eric Mangini and Bill Belichick, especially since they split the season series. Mangini has gotten his guys to play week in and week out, but the fact remains that they only defeated one team with a winning record during the regular season. They deserve credit for handling the weaker opponents, but I don't believe the Jets are ready for this type of game. The Patriots had a couple of games in which they didn't even show up earlier in the season, but they have plenty of veterans that have been here before and are ready to move on to the next round. Final Score: Patriots 20, Jets 10.