The Patriots return home for their last regular season home game of 2016. The next time fans see the Pats at Gillette will be the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The Patriots are 12-2 and could clinch the top seed in the AFC today with a win coupled with either a Raiders loss or tie. The team remembers the late season swoon in the final two games, losses to both the Jets and Miami which cost them home-field advantage. They won’t be wanting that to happen again.
The Jets are 4-10 and playing out the string. The season has been a crushing disappointment for Todd Bowles crew. He was admitted to the hospital yesterday in New York with an undisclosed illness and may not be there on the sidelines later today. But they’d love nothing better than putting coal in the Patriots Christmas stocking again this year.
Here are our five players from a Patriots perspective to watch on Sunday:
QB Tom Brady: Brady popped up again on the injury report this week with a thigh injury. Although it is considered minor, anything to do with #12 will bear watching. Brady didn’t have big game numbers wise last week, but a lot of that was by design as the team opted to use a bigger approach to the running game.
This week, look for the offense to get back into their normal balance. And that begins with Brady. The Jets secondary has been suspect this season which the lack of pass rush hasn’t helped.
Look for Brady to try to get the passing game back in gear quickly today. They’ll want to get out to a quick start and to do so will require Brady to be sharp. With plenty of weapons that can be brought to bear, he’ll spread it around.
LB Dont’a Hightower: Hightower is also dealing with an injury, a knee issue that was clearly bothering him in Denver. But it is reported that he’ll play thru it again this week. Hightower is the Patriots main man in the middle of the defense. He’s the guy that cleans up the play after the defensive line slows down the run at the point of attack.
The Jets have been very successful lately at running Bilal Powell with Matt Forte hurting. Powell is a guy that has hurt the Patriots in the past and they’ll want him keeping the pressure off the inexperienced Bryce Petty at QB.
The Patriots will want to naturally put the ball in Petty’s hands and force him to beat them. And that means stopping the running game. Hightower will be a big part of the defense in that aspect. Going against a beat-up Jets offensive line, he’ll be a key player to watch especially if they decide to blitz him up the A-gap.
RB LeGarrette Blount: Blount wasn’t the focus of the Patriots running game last week in Denver, they opted for the smaller, quicker Dion Lewis to go against the Broncos defense. Although Lewis will again get a lot of reps today, look for the focus to be back again on the Pats’ big man on the ground.
With the focus on having the balance back in the offense this week, they’ll want to hammer the ball inside with Blount and keeping the Jets defense honest and keep them from blitzing on obvious passing situations.
Look for Blount to get upward of 20 carries today against the big, physical front of the Jets. And that should be a recipe for success, the more carries Blount gets, it means that the Patriots should be in control of this one.
CB Malcolm Butler: The Patriots secondary has had their issues with the Jets big wide receivers in the past. Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker (IR) and Quincy Enunwa have given them problems in the past. And their first line of defense will be deciding on who Butler covers.
Butler did an excellent job at limiting Emmanuel Sanders last week save for a few garbage time catches. The Jets still have Marshall and Enunwa and with Decker out, Robby Anderson has been a favorite target of Petty. In his last two games, he’s caught six passes for 99 yards and added four catches for 80 yards against the Dolphins.
It will be interesting to see who the Patriots turn their most attention to. But Butler has been their best corner all season and he’ll be the guy they trust the most, regardless if he has over the top safety help…right, Emmanuel?
WR Malcolm Mitchell: The wide receivers other than Julian Edelman were mainly used as decoys a week ago. Mitchell and Chris Hogan were tasked with pulling the Broncos corners away from where they intended to go. With so many weapons, it is a good problem to have. Now they’ll want to get all of them involved in the passing game again.
While Edelman will remain the primary target for Brady on most downs, Mitchell, as well as Hogan will be important players to watch in the passing offense today. The rookie wide receiver from Georgia has been a nice addition to the offense this year. He’s earned Brady’s trust and they know he can be counted upon in crunch time.
Against the Jets last month, Mitchell caught two touchdowns on passes from Brady. The second one, after the two-minute warning, gave the Patriots the win over the Jets. Both coincidentally were against Darrelle Revis. That won’t be forgotten by the Jets, especially Revis as they prepare for this week’s game.
For that reason alone, Mitchell would be a player to watch today, but with him becoming a more valuable role player in the offense, he’ll be looked to by Brady to provide some key catches at important parts of the game.
Stay tuned to PatsFans.com as we’ll have up-to-the-minute breaking news as well as post-game analysis.