When the Jets host the Patriots on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, they will be bringing along with them, a shared history that has turned into a pro football border war over the past ten years. The game not only features marquee names on both sides, it crosses the paths of two clubs who have traveled different roads in 2011, only to have landed at the same stop simultaneously: As part of a three way first place tie with Buffalo, for first place in the AFC East.
To help us break down what has become for both clubs, the most highly anticipated opponent on the schedule, we were joined by TJ Rosenthal from The Jet Report, Mike Dussault from Pats Propaganda, NBC’s Bruce Beck and WFAN’s Jeff Capellini.
Here is Part I of a three part series:
1. Talk to us about the first half of the season for the Pats. What kind of trip has it been?
Dussault: The first half of the Pats season has been a steady decline in offensive production and consistent inconsistency on defense. Tom Brady has been uncharacteristically sloppy and is already 4 interceptions away from his career high. The defense has shown improvement and looks to have a higher ceiling than they did in 2010 but they need to come through in clutch spots like they did against the Cowboys.
Capellini: I wonder if the Pats just got old in a hurry, because their offense was unreal over the first five games, but has looked rather un-Pats-like over the last three. Now, granted, their last three foes have been three very good teams, but when has that stopped New England from bludgeoning anyone in the past? I think they really need Branch and Och to stretch the field, but so far they haven’t.
Ocho has been a disaster and the passing attack has really relied almost too heavily on the tight end combo of Gronkowski and Hernandez. Sure, Welker is awesome in this system and will continue to be, but without a really solid running game and really no deep threats the Pats aren’t, at least lately, ripping off the big chunks of yardage we’re used to seeing from them. Defensively, there’s nothing to see here, which is quite stunning considering Belichick’s prowess as the master game planner and schemer, mixed with the fact that the organization has drafted countless defensive players over the last five years. How many are stars now? Not many at all.
2. Are the Jets and Patriots where you expected them to be heading into the second half record wise, and performance wise?
Caporoso: I thought both teams would be about a game better at this point. The Jets struggled more early on than I expected and New England is struggling more now than I expected. In the end, both are going to compete for this division title down to the final weeks but neither will likely establish themselves as a truly dominant team, similar to how the Packers are right now.
Beck: The Jets are the better team right now. They have momentum and confidence. The Patriots look puzzled. Brady looks mortal.
Cappellini: Yes and no. I expected them to be at the top of the division, but I figured one would be either undefeated or have one loss and the other to have no more than two losses. The Jets had their problems early, but have fought out of the abyss. The Patriots are sort of in one now, but I’m not sure we’ll see the same vaunted Pats again for the reasons I stated earlier.
3. The two head coaches, Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick are so interesting to compare and contrast. Help us do that, from their work on the sidelines to their media presence during the week as they get ready for an opponent.
Beck: The difference in the coaching styles is dramatic. Rex is a whirling dervish — a bundle of energy — a cheerleader of the highest degree. Belichick is as stoic as Landry — as unemotional as any Coach in the game. Their styles may contrast but they both burn inside with a incredible desire to succeed and in this case — kick the other guy’s butt!
Caporoso: Clearly their personalities, at least their public personalities couldn’t be any more different. Regardless, I do think there is a high level of mutual respect between the two of them and an example that there are different, effective ways to motivate a successful team. These two teams know each other inside out at this point, which is what makes watching the game plan process so interesting. How can Belichick compensate for his lack of talent on defense? How can Rex attack Tom Brady and his variety of weapons? This is a chess match between two unique, interesting head coaches.
Dussault: This might surprise some Jets fans but I am a big Rex Ryan fan. I’ve read his book and love what he brings to the rivalry. I think both coaches can make things more difficult on themselves with their respective styles at times, but clearly both are effective at preparing their teams to play. The fun part is that their styles couldn’t be more opposite so it brings a great balance to the rivalry.
4. Let’s breakdown the work of the quarterbacks so far. How they’ve played, where they might want want to improve going forward.
Dussault: For Tom Brady it’s about making better decisions. He’s been under duress a little more this season, especially in the last few games and has been the victim of a number of tipped ball interceptions. If Brady can get back to playing consistent the Patriots offense should start to roll again. It will also require his wide receivers to start beating press man coverage more consistently and for Brady to deliver the ball quickly and accurately. I’m confident that he will turn it around, I just hope it’s this weekend.
The Jet Report: Sanchez and the Jets have owned three personalities on offense this season. Initially, they tried to become a pass first offense, with Burress and Mason as additions to the WR corps. Then, the coaches decided to return to the Ground and Pound. Recognizing that this was too drastic of a measure, a balance was found against San Diego. Sanchez has done well spreading it around during this stretch, but can’t continue to throw early interceptions. THAT habit will haunt the Jets someday soon if it continues.
Capellini: Brady is a fiery guy who leads by example, but if you’ve watched his demeanor of late he seems like he realizes that if this team doesn’t get its act together in a hurry all of New England may be in for a major disappointment. Slamming water bottles? Barking at everyone? I think he realizes the urgency of the situation. On the field, sure, he’s thrown more interceptions this year, but iit s hard to kill the guy when you compare so-called “down” or “average” Brady years to the immortal seasons he’s put together in the past. He’s still the same guy. The rest of his team isn’t.
Sanchez has become more of a team leader this season, but only because his performance has improved. He’s on pace for career high in every positive statistical category. Until he’s a hardened veteran I think he’s content to be a co-leader. The most important thing about Mark is he’s avoided long tailspins. He hasn’t allowed his dumb mistakes to snowball or fester. This is a different guy than from his first two seasons.
5. What do Jets fans think of Tom Brady as a player? What do Pats fans think of Mark Sanchez as a player?
Caporoso: I respect the hell out of Brady as a football player and a leader but hate the way he whines to the officials. As Jets fans, we hate Brady because he has won and because he quarterbacks our rival team. Yet, you can’t argue that he is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
Dussault: I really respect what Mark Sanchez did vs. the Pats in the playoffs last year. He needed to play perfectly and he did. However I know that he can be dreadfully inconsistent. I believe it all starts with stopping the Jets running game. If they’re able to run it takes the pressure of Sanchez and opens up their play action and short passing game. He’s the kind of quarterback that you can’t let get going. If you allow him to build confidence he will only get better over the course of the game. But if you make him uncomfortable, or build a lead on him, he can implode.
The Jet Report: We’re more concerned about what Jets fans think about Mark Sanchez (laughs). Brady’s Brady. The smart football fan recognizes his greatness, his ability to incorporate the ballboy in a crossing route if necessary .Sanchez, is getting the old Phil Simms treatment in New York. Called out for his mistakes much more often than he is highlighted for his attributes, for which he has many. The most greatest of them, being his ability to elevate his play late in games and win. Period.
Capellini: The answer is totally based on results. Jets fans secretly admire Brady because he’s the standard by which all other quarterbacks should be measured. Simply, you hate him because he lights you up. However, Patriots fans, I believe, have little respect for Sanchez the QB. They have actually earned the right to be skeptical because until the day comes when Sanchez can at least be on the fringes of the conversation with a player like Brady, he’s just not at the level they expect for a “great.” It’s fair that they think this way. The Jets talk until the cows come home that he’s the face of the franchise. They’ve made their own bed with opposing fans. Hey, being hated means your respected, but as far as individual players go, the NFL is the “show me” state.
6. Both backfields split up the workload differently. Are you satisfied with the current distribution of touches among Jets running backs?
Caporoso: Yes, I think they are moving in the right direction. Shonn Greene needs 17-25 carries every week to be successful . LaDainian Tomlinson is all you can ask for as a third down back and Joe McKnight is becoming more involved each week. I think Brian Schottenheimer finally has a grip on how to use all three.
Capellini: It’s getting better, but at the same time I don’t want to see the Jets lessen Greene’s load now that he’s got his game in gear and the offensive line is blocking like it has in the past. Schottenheimer still needs to use Tomlinson more as a receiver, but he did a nice job going to LT inside the red zone against the Bills. McKnight is the change-of-pace guy. Keep getting him the ball at least seven times per game as a runner and the Jets will be very hard to decipher on the ground.
7. Gronkowski and Hernanadez: So special. So hard to defend. Why?
Dussault: It really starts with Gronkowski because of his ability to be dominant as a blocker and receiver. He forces teams to show their hand defensively. Hernandez is being treated more and more like a receiver and that limits his effectiveness somewhat. Opposing defenses have been pressing them both at the line and neither have the true quickness to gain separation instantly. That has been a huge factor in the slowing down the Pats offense recently. However in the red zone there is no combination in the NFL that is more dangerous. Look at the clutch touchdowns from the Dallas and Giants game: Hernandez has two of them and Gronk has one.
The Jet Report: Who does this? Nobody. Who thinks of an approach to attack downfield like this? Only Belichick. We know other teams have utilized two tight ends in the passing game, but not as hybrid receivers with size, power and their own individual toughness. We can only imagine how much more devastating these two can be if and when one more talented WR joins the huddle up in Foxboro.
Capellini: Both are really wide receivers. Both are extremely gifted physically, have great hands and each can make things happen after the catch. It’s a very unique situation when you get an Antonio Gates-like talent at tight end. It’s even more unique when you have potentially two tight ends that can do it.
8. Bruce, watching the Jets from a vantage point that few if any have, how does Mark Sanchez handle himself emotionally after mistakes? Who are the emotional leaders on the team, the ones that others follow for advice or inspiration?
Beck: Sanchez is mature beyond his years. His composure is remarkable. He does not get rattled by an early mistake — or two. Just last week in Buffalo, he was awful in the first half and very solid in the final thirty minutes. His leadership abilities are outstanding. During the lockout, he ran his quarterback camp in Calif for his teammates — and then took them all to the Lakers game. That stuff goes a long way. It is not something you can teach. You are born with it. He has the “it” factor!
Bart Scott is the vocal leader. His brashness reflects his head coach. His bravado irks opponents. LaDainian Tomlinson is a classy, quiet leader. He prefers to set an example for others to follow. Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis are both outstanding players, whose professionalism and work ethic are beyond reproach. They exhibit fire on occassion and a quiet calm on others. They clearly are leaders of this football team
CHECK BACK FOR PART II TOMORROW