By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots and Jets play each other twice every year, but it’s been quite some time since the two division rivals squared off on Monday Night Football.
The last time it happened could be considered a different era for both teams. Rex Ryan was New York’s head coach, and Mark Sanchez was the quarterback. Though Bill Belichick and Tom Brady obviously occupied those roles for New England, the Patriots’ leading rusher was BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and their leading receiver that night was Danny Woodhead, followed by Wes Welker, Deion Branch and Aaron Hernandez.
The Patriots won that game on Dec. 6, 2010, by a final score of 45-3. It led most people in the world to assume that similar results awaited when the two teams met a month later in the divisional round of the playoffs, but, well, we know that such assumptions proved to make tuchuses out of many yous and many mes.
Interestingly enough, the Patriots were 9.5-point favorites for that famed playoff meeting, when they were upset by the Jets. This week, the Patriots are 9.5-point favorites.
While an upset still remains a long shot, here are four areas to watch when the two teams take the field in the Meadowlands.
What Can Shorthanded Patriots’ Offense Do?
The Patriots’ offensive line has been struggling, both in pass protection and in the run game. The tight end spot has been a black hole. Josh Gordon is hurt, and Phillip Dorsett is on the mend from a hamstring issue. There’s little doubt that Tom Brady’s offense is not entering this game at full power.
But the offense is entering this game after a very lengthy break, having not played since the previous Thursday night. And considering Josh McDaniels is widely considered one of the great offensive coaching minds in football, it’s fair to expect that he and Brady have more than a few plans in store for a Jets defense that they’ll be facing for the second time in five weeks. (This time around, the Jets should have impactful linebacker C.J. Mosley on the field, though.)
It’s worth noting that the Patriots had a very up-and-down showing against that Jets D in Foxboro back in Week 3. New England opened with three touchdown drives, gaining 192 yards on 22 plays and looking like an unstoppable force. After that, though, they gained just 68 yards on 25 plays across their next five drives, moving backward on two of those drives. A 60-yard touchdown drive showed that the offense had life, but the Patriots finished the game with three punts and a pick-six from Jarrett Stidham.
A repeat performance like that may not play quite as well in a road game. Especially if …
Slingin’ Sammy Darnold
For as much as the Jets have been a near-total joke offensively this season, that’s largely been due to the absence of their starting quarterback. That was quite evident last week, when Sam Darnold returned after his bout with mononucleosis and looked outstanding against the Cowboys.
Darnold did throw a red-zone interception, after what appeared to be a miscommunication with receiver Jamison Crowder. But he completed 23 of his 32 passes (71.9%) for 338 yards with two touchdowns. That included a 92-yard connection with Robby Anderson.
Of course, that came against a Dallas defense that ranks 16th in the NFL in opponents’ passer rating, 10th in the NFL in pass yards allowed per attempt, and is tied for 25th in interceptions. The Patriots rank first, first … and first in those three categories, thus making the challenge a bit steeper for Darnold this week.
Still, he showed Sunday that he’s a massive upgrade to Luke Falk, so don’t be entirely surprised if Darnold finds a modicum success against the vaunted Patriots defense.
Demaryius’ Revenge sounds like it would be a pretty decent video game, but in this case, it will involve some hurt feelings from the veteran receiver.
While it is true that Demaryius Thomas’ comments this week about getting dumped by the Patriots were blown slightly out of proportion, the fact remains that Thomas will be carrying a moderate-sized grudge with him when he suits up on Monday night. That stems from his decision to wait for the Patriots to re-sign him after they cut him at the end of the preseason, only to be traded away a week after re-signing in order to make room for Antonio Brown.
Thomas said that he felt that treatment was “disrespectful” and “insulting,” that he was treated “like I’m just a rookie,” and that his re-signing with New England was a “waste of time.”
His feelings are surely valid, and he’ll just as surely be looking to show the Patriots that they goofed by letting him go — and trading him to a divisional rival, no less.
Stephon Gilmore is likely to be busy locking down Robby Anderson, leaving Jason McCourty and/or Jonathan Jones to get the bulk of the work covering Thomas.
Thomas, by the way, caught four passes (on four targets) for 62 yards last week in his first work with Darnold this season.
The Patriots had some issues with Stephen Gostkowski this year. Those problems have not exactly gone away since he was placed on IR.
Meanwhile the Jets have had kicking issues of their own, as they cut Kaare Vedvik after he missed a PAT and a 45-yard field goal in a game the Jets lost in Week 1 … by a single point.
Sam Ficken has played the last four games for the Jets, hitting two of his three field goals (the miss came from 55 yards) and going 5-for-5 on PATs. In his three-year NFL career, Ficken has just nine field goal attempts, and he’s hit just five of them. He’s 19-for-20 on PATs.
For the Patriots, it will be Mike Nugent kicking footballs, and he’s missed one kick in each of his first two games with New England. He pushed a PAT wide right in Washington and clanked another one off the upright, and he missed a 40-yard field goal last week against the Giants (with an assist to Jake “Laces In” Bailey.)
Considering the Patriots’ offense may have some issues finding the end zone, and considering the Jets may find it difficult to penetrate the historically dominant Patriots defense, the kickers are likely to play a rather significant role in how this game goes down in the history books. Neither team can feel entirely comfortable with that scenario, and certainly nobody should be looking away during any kick on Monday night. Each one should be fairly important, and each one should likewise be a bit of a nail-biter.