It might be part of Rex Ryan’s master plan, but the Jets’ choice words have lifted the intensity for Sunday’s AFC Divisional game in New England from grudge match to street fight (4:30 p.m., CBS).
If the brash Jets (12-5) were supposed to be humbled by last month’s 45-3 meltdown on Monday Night Football, it’s not showing. What began with Ryan’s criticism of Tom Brady’s film-study habits a week ago, before the Jets even played Indianapolis in the wild-card round, culminated in cornerback Antonio Cromartie’s profanity-laced tirade against the Patriots’ quarterback earlier this week.
Prompted by questions about Brady’s on-field touchdown celebrations, Cromartie called the two-time Super Bowl MVP “an ass----,” and followed it with a stern, “F--- him.”
There will be no punishment for Cromartie from the Jets, but the well-rested and healthy Patriots (14-2) could be thinking otherwise. New England enters this weekend’s matchup on an eight-game winning streak, scoring 31 points or more in each game en route to becoming the league’s highest-scoring offense.
Play with urgency
The Jets had only three games this season where they scored a first-quarter touchdown: wins against Miami, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh. When playing on instinct, Mark Sanchez and the Jets’ offense ditch the conservative approach and find ways to score — much like they did during last week’s game-winning drive at Indianapolis. The Patriots’ 30th-ranked pass defense isn’t as bad as statistics suggest, since they’re often defending a significant lead, but their young secondary and zone coverage schemes can be exploited by veteran receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. Another slow offensive start would only provide the Patriots’ potent offense with opportunities to develop a rhythm.
Defensive back overload
Tom Brady’s mastery of the dink-and-dunk offense means the Jets are faced with a potential playmaker in every eligible Patriots receiver. Because Brady’s check-down routes leave the Jets with limited interception opportunities, the focus must be on disrupting Brady’s timing and hammering his targets within the legal five-yard threshold. By applying press coverage on the outside, the Jets could overwhelm the Pats with speedy defensive backs while linebackers clog the paths for crossing patterns and spy for screen passes.
Getting sparks from Cromartie
Antonio Cromartie clearly has a lot of aggression he’d like to release, and the Jets need to channel his anger through special-teams returns. Although Brad Smith handles the Jets’ kick return duties admirably, Cromartie was a gazelle last week against the Colts’ kick coverage, posing a legitimate scoring threat as he glided up the field. His 47-yard return set up the win with phenomenal field position — a luxury the Jets didn’t have on Dec. 6 in Foxborough. Even if Cromartie can’t break through New England’s 17th-ranked kick coverage for a score, he could give the offense a short enough field to finish the job.
An offense possessed
The Jets finished the regular season as the NFL’s third-best team in time of possession, averaging 32:37 per game on offense. With the Patriots owning the NFL’s worst third-down defense (47.1 percent conversion rate allowed), the Jets offense could control the clock and keep Brady off the field. Running back tandem LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn “War Machine” Greene should be able to rattle off first downs against the Pats’ 11th-ranked rush defense. Recall, however, that the Patriots' rush defense has gone unchallenged for most of the season; opponents have abandoned the ground game for a pass-heavy approach when playing from behind on the scoreboard.
Be more than elusive
Sanchez improved his pocket awareness this season and developed his ability to evade pass rushers, but his elusiveness must continue to evolve. With right tackle Damien Woody (Achilles tendon) placed on injured reserve Wednesday, Sanchez may need to escape the pocket to protect himself and his sore shoulder. He might not have Michael Vick’s speed, but a willingness to dart for reachable first downs, rather than force passes after escaping pressure, will make the second-year quarterback more dynamic while adding a threat to the Jets’ inconsistent offense.