When Rex Ryan was head coach of the New York Jets, he used to have games against the New England Patriots circled on his calendar months in advance. He made it well known to the media that is was a big game, and his team always played hard even when they did not have much hope at turning their season around.
But this is not your Rex Ryan-led Jets anymore, and that seems to be a good thing. New head coach Todd Bowles is at the helm now, and so far things are great. The Jets have started the season 4-1, with all of their wins coming by two scores or more. Most seasoned NFL observers feel the Patriots will take advantage of playing Sunday's game at home, but others are looking to the Jets for a different outcome.
Something that has not happened for a long time is happening for the Jets: They are exciting and effective on both sides of the football. We all know the Jets for their defense, and that remains stout as ever. They allow the fewest yards per game in the league, only 269.2, on the strength of the second-best defense against the pass and the run. According to Football Outsiders, the Jets are also the second best defense in terms of efficiency by DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value over Average), a statistic which measures the effectiveness of a defense and accounts for when and how yards and points are accumulated.
But it is the Jets offense which has been the big surprise, led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and All-Pro wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Fitzpatrick, whose career achievement thus far has been graduating from Harvard, has emerged as one of the most consistent quarterbacks to start the season. His 76.6 quarterback rating is good for fifth best in the league, better than the likes of Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and one Tom Brady. A major factor in his success has been target monster Marshall, who has hauled in 37 catches for 511 yards and 4 touchdowns and been a safety valve when the team needs a crucial first down.
While the Jets offense is good, New England’s remains great. Off to an undefeated start, the Patriots disposed of the Colts last week to get to 5-0, with Tom Brady playing the titular protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your allegiance) in the "Deflategate" grudge match. So far, the quarterback’s play is reminiscent of his NFL record-setting 2007 season, throwing for 339.8 yards per game, which would be the best per game average of his career. The running game’s effectiveness has been a big help for the passing attack, and the combination of LaGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis have averaged five yards per carry and caught 28 balls out of the backfield.
The glue that puts it all together has been the offensive line, which is among the best in both run and pass blocking. Their 4.94 adjusted yards per carry, a stat based on regression analysis that assigns responsibility for the yards earned by a running back to the lineman, is best in the league, and their running plays are getting stuffed only 12 percent of the time, also best in the league.
Injuries on the line have been an issue for New England, however, and it will be interesting to see how the line performs in the wake of several substitutions. Stalwart Nate Solder has been lost for the season, and his replacement, Marcus Cannon, has already been ruled out for Sunday’s game. Lineman Shaq Mason has also been banged up, and his status for Sunday is uncertain. Always poised head coach Bill Belichick shockingly expressed a modicum of concern at his press conference this week.
"You lose two players at any position, on any team, that's an issue," Belichick told CSN New England. "Two of anything with anybody, pick any team in the league, that would be an issue. Once you start getting into that area, you gotta start thinking about what's our emergency move, how do we get through this?”
The injuries for the Patriots come at a bad time as they match up against a formidable Jets defensive line. Brady will be under siege most of the day, and the holes for the New England running backs should be smaller than they have been so far this season. Expect the Jets to keep the score very close and maybe even shock the Patriots.
The Jets and Patriots kick off at 1 p.m. Eastern time Sunday in Foxborough, Mass. The game will be televised regionally on CBS.