Ten reasons to fear the Patriots
The Jets face the AFC East champion New England Patriots in Sunday's divisional round playoff game. The rivals split their two games in the regular season, but what makes the Pats so dangerous this time around? Let's take a look.
10) DEION BRANCH
Reprieved from a 4 1/2-year exile in Seattle, Branch played like he never left when the Patriots reacquired him in October. The Super Bowl XXXIX MVP caught 48 balls for 706 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games, essentially filling the deep-threat role formerly occupied by Randy Moss.
He's not as dangerous as Moss, nor as reliable as Wes Welker. But if the Jets don't pay attention to him, he can get behind the safeties and make game-changing plays. His chemistry with Tom Brady will probably make him a frequent target and his big-game credentials (21 catches in two Super Bowl appearances) make him doubly worrisome for Jets fans.
9) THE PATS DON'T MAKE MISTAKES
We can say this with confidence: The Patriots will not beat themselves this Sunday against the Jets. New England had a +28 turnover ratio, by far the best in the NFL this season. Tom Brady threw only four interceptions, getting picked on fewer than 1 percent of his passes.
And not only do the Patriots not put the ball on the ground (they fumbled a league-low nine times), they don't give the ball up when they fumble (they lost a league-low five fumbles).
8) THE BALL-HAWKING SECONDARY
Quick, name a New England defensive back. BUZZZZ, time's up! If you said Devin McCoutry, James Sanders (above), Brandon Meriweather or Patrick Chung. . . you are probably a Patriots fan. If you are, you might know that the Patriots' starting DBs had 16 interceptions this year and the team had a league-leading 25 INTs.
A secondary that allowed the third-most passing yards in the league wouldn't seem like something to be afraid of. But a closer look reveals the Pats were actually in the middle of the pack for yards allowed per catch. You're going to give up a lot of passing yards when opponents are constantly throwing the ball to play catch up. If Mark Sanchez is wild like he was in the Colts game, count on the Pats making him pay for it. They did in Week 13, when they picked Sanchez three times.
7) HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
The Jets have generally disregarded opponents' home field edge in postseason games, going 3-1 on the road in Rex Ryan era. But here are some reasons why playing this game in New England is significant:
First, Gillette Stadium was the scene of the Jets' ugly 45-3 loss earlier this year. There have to be some demons leftover from that. As much as the Jets would like to pretend that game was an aberration, it exposed holes they are still trying to patch up. Second, the Patriots have not lost at home this year. Third, the Jets have not beaten the Patriots at Gilette Stadium under Rex Ryan. Convinced yet?
6) DANNY WOODHEAD
Beware the power of Danny Woodhead's revenge. The Jets released the 5-8, 195 pound running back on Sept. 14. Two weeks later, he was in the Patriots' starting lineup, replacing injured scatback Kevin Faulk.
Woodhead had a breakthrough season, compiling 926 combined yards and six touchdowns as a running and receiving threat. He had four catches for 104 yards in the Patriots' Week 13 dusting of the Jets in Foxboro. He's a good change of pace to the pounding style of fellow running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and a very good third down back.
5) JEROD MAYO
If you follow the NFL, you've probably heard his name. But you may not realize that Mayo (left, with Vince Wilfork) was the league's leading tackler with 114 solo tackles and 61 assists.
Mayo, a third-year pro out of Tennessee, may be the AFC's best middle linebacker not named Ray Lewis. He made his first Pro Bowl this season and will be a key factor in the Jets' ability to run the ball. If he can close down running lanes, the Jets won't be able to control the ball, which will be a huge part of their offensive gameplan.
4) WES WELKER
Ho-hum. Another 86-catch, seven-touchdown season for Welker, this one coming off major knee surgery. Opposing defenses have never been able to figure out how to stop the spritely 5-9, 185-pound receiver. With Randy Moss gone, he's become Tom Brady's No. 1 target.
Welker has torched the Jets, catching 42 passes for 490 yards and 2 touchdowns in his past five games against them. It will be up to Jets CB Darrelle Revis, who stopped Reggie Wayne last week against Indianapolis, to take Welker out of the game.
3) VINCE WILFORK AND THE DEFENSIVE LINE
"Weapon of Mass Obstruction" Vince Wilfork is a beast, occupying 325 pounds of space. When he's at his best, he's driving blockers into the backfield, clearing lanes for his linebackers and disrupting runners before they get started.
He can set up at any position along the defensive line, but is listed at nose tackle. When he plays there, it'll be up to Jets Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold to keep Wilfork out of Shonn Greene's and LaDainian Tomlinson's airspace.
2) TOM BRADY
Aside from his 36 touchdowns, his extensive playoff experience and more extensively long hair, Brady is as cool as they come. He's a deadly efficient, not a bomber like Drew Brees, a gunslinger like Peyton Manning or a scrambling threat like Michael Vick (all watching the playoffs from home now by the way). He's reliable and steady, with the talent and arm strength to make every throw on the field.
Brady doesn't make mistakes. He threw just four interceptions and fumbled just three times, losing one. When you're both very good and very careful in the NFL, you are very tough to beat.
1) BILL BELICHICK
He's surly, churlish and frustratingly tight-lipped about everything. For Jets fans, he's Darth Vader in a hoodie. He's also the most successful coach of his era with three Super Bowl rings and eight playoff appearances in the last 10 years. Even Rex Ryan himself admitted that Belichick was the best coach in the league.
Known primarily as a defensive mastermind, Belichick is always thinking a step ahead on both sides of the ball. Players play the game, not coaches, but in this case, a huge part of Sunday's game will be contested on the sidelines, where Ryan must outwit his chief adversary.