By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The final weekend of the NFL regular season is upon us, and despite a relative down season by Patriots standards, New England is still playing for a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Patriots just need to beat the 4-11 New York Jets to clinch a much-needed week off when the postseason begins. But their divisional foe would love to play spoiler, even if it does cost them their outside shot at the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
The Patriots shouldn’t take the Jets lightly, because they really can’t take any team lightly this season. That being said, New York has lost eight of their last nine games, and just coughed up a 35-20 lead against the Packers in New Jersey last weekend. There’s a reason they’re in the running for the No. 1 pick.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots and Jets kick off Sunday afternoon in Foxboro:
The Battle Of Special Teams
This part of the matchup must have Bill Belichick salivating. After a tough start to the season, the New England special teams unit has been making some big plays over the last month. They have blocked or deflected three punts in the last three weeks, which is pretty incredible.
Matthew Slater partially blocked a Matt Darr punt last week against the Bills, giving the Patriots the ball at the Buffalo 33. They didn’t do anything with it (Brian Hoyer was at quarterback by that time), but it’s great to see special teams continue to make big plays midway through the fourth quarter with the team up by 18.
And then there is punter Ryan Allen, who has been putting on a clinic these last three weeks. He’s had seven punts downed inside the 20-yard-line with zero touchbacks, a testament to both his leg and the unit’s ability to down the football better than just about anyone else.
That’s going to be important on Sunday with Pro Bowler Andre Roberts returning kicks for the Jets. He had an explosive 78-yard punt return for a touchdown back in Week 1 (still impressive despite the fact it was against the Lions), and is averaging 14.7 yards per return. He leads the NFL with three punt returns of 40 or more yards.
He’s also pretty good at returning kickoffs, as the Packers found out last weekend.
With that score, Roberts became just the second player in Jets history to have a punt return TD and kickoff return TD in the same season. He also returned a kickoff 51 yards to the Green Bay 38 to help set up the game-tying field goal to force overtime. He leads the NFL with an astounding seven kickoff returns of 40 or more yards, averaging 29.3 yards per return.
And it hasn’t just been Roberts’ returns on the New York special teams. The Jets forced and recovered a fumble on a kickoff against Green Bay in the third quarter, leading to an easy touchdown for their offense to give them that 35-20 lead they would later squander. They also executed a fake punt to keep a drive alive, but being the Jets, they ended up punting five plays later.
Given New England’s struggles in the passing game, any edge they can get on special teams becomes even more important.
Even before Josh Gordon was no longer in the mix, the Patriots showed signs of becoming a run-first offense. And now that one of their most reliable receivers is no longer an option in the passing game, they will need to rely even more on the run.
That should mean a healthy serving of Sony Michel against the Jets, a team he gashed for 133 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries back in Week 12. Overall, the Pats rushed for 215 yards in the Meadowlands, averaging six yards per carry. Michel is coming off a solid 116-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills where he averaged 6.4 yards per attempt and found the end zone for the first time since that Week 12 matchup with New York.
The Jets run defense has been suspect lately, giving up an average of 120 rushing yards over their last four games. The average is only that low because they somehow held the Houston Texans to just 47 rushing yards in Week 15. For the season, New York is giving up an average of 126 rushing yards per game, ranking them 26th in the league.
Get ready for a Sony day at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
The Other Rookie
The Patriots did not see Sam Darnold in Week 12, as the Jets rookie QB missed the game with a foot injury. The No. 3 overall pick still has a lot to learn, but he’s looked great over the last three weeks since returning from that injury, throwing for 764 yards, six touchdowns and just one interception.
Unfortunately for Darnold, Robbie Anderson will be his only real receiver on Sunday. New York has already ruled Quincy Enunwa (ankle) and Jermaine Kearse (Achilles) out for the contest, leaving Roberts and Deontay Burnett to slide up the depth chart. That duo has a grand total of 13 catches this season. That won’t help Darnold’s cause against a New England secondary looking to head into the playoffs on a high note.
It also doesn’t help that Belichick is 10-0 against rookie quarterbacks in Foxboro since taking over in New England. He’s 17-5 overall against rookie QBs with the Patriots.
But it does appear that the Jets may indeed have a quarterback of the future. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in his first go against the Patriots.
There will be plenty scoreboard-watching on Sunday.
The Patriots can make things easy by simply beating the Jets and securing that No. 2 seed. If/when that happens, Patriots fans will become Raiders and Broncos fans for a few hours. If the Patriots win and both the Chiefs and Chargers lose, the Pats jump into the No. 1 seed. That likely won’t happen, but it’s the NFL.
There are some major consequences if the Patriots lose. If they drop this game and the Texans beat the lowly Jaguars in Houston, the Texans take over the No. 2 seed and the Patriots will miss out on a first-round bye. At that point, they could be either the three- or four-seed, depending on how the afternoon games play out.
The Texans and Jaguars also play at 1 p.m., but most of the games that could dictate where the Patriots finish in the standings are at 4:25 p.m. The Colts and Titans will clash for a spot in the playoffs at 8:20 p.m., and that game could also decide where the Patriots sit in the AFC playoff picture if New England loses on Sunday.
Even if the Patriots beat the Jets and clinch that No. 2 seed by 4 p.m., there will be plenty of meaningful football to watch.
Tune in to Patriots-Jets Sunday afternoon on WBZ-TV — the home of the New England Patriots. Coverage kicks off Sunday morning at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay. After the Patriots and the Jets square off at 1 p.m., switch over to myTV38 for all the reaction and analysis from the game on Patriots 5th Quarter!