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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Patriots are better the second time around
With a short week to prepare, and with six losses having shoved his team's collective back against the wall, Rex Ryan said Monday that this is no time to worry about tweaking the Patriots.
On the contrary, the blowhard coach who seems to have been humbled by the deterioration of his Jets over the past year was actually exceedingly complimentary of New England, defending Bill Belichick's decision to leave Rob Gronkowski on the kicking team late in Sunday's game, calling Tom Brady a "once-in-a-generation quarterback" and acknowledging New England's knack for playing its best from November forward.
"Good teams get better as the season goes on," he said. "Certainly, that's a team that's well-coached."
Ryan can vouch for that as well as anyone. Because based on the way things have gone against the Patriots the second time his team has faced its stated rival in each of his three seasons - meetings where a coaching staff's ability to adjust and adapt really tends to show up - Belichick's team has been vastly superior.
The notable exception, and it certainly can't be overlooked because it ended what seemed a promising Patriots' season, was the 2010 divisional playoff where the Jets benefited from a botched fake punt and bad New England pass protection. Though each time Ryan and Belichick have gone head to head for the second time in the regular season, the Pats have been not only the better team, but the more improved team, and it's not even been close.
In the first meetings of Ryan's four seasons at the helm, his Jets have won twice, and nearly had a third at Gillette Stadium in October before the Patriots tied the game on a late field goal and subsequently won in overtime. New York has actually outscored New England in those initial contests, by an average of 22.8-20.5, and committed half as many turnovers, by a count of 6-3.
When the clubs get together again, however, everything changes.
In their second meetings, the Patriots offense has averaged 37.7 points (compared to the aforementioned 20.5), while gaining almost 50 more yards per game (401-354), improving their passing yardage by more than 60 yards per tilt (311-250), and doing a much better job of protecting the ball. Their only second-game turnover came in 2009.
It's a similar story on the other side of scrimmage, too. Defensively, the Patriots have allowed an average of just 11 points the second time around against Mark Sanchez's attack (half of the 22.8 in earlier games), while allowing slightly fewer passing (198-180) and total yards (312-302). And, again, the biggest difference comes in turnovers: the Pats average less than a takeaway per game the first time facing the Jets (three in four tilts), then get nearly four per contest the second (11 in three games, including nine Sanchez interceptions).
If provoking turnovers is a product of creating confusion and exposing weaknesses, that suggests Belichick's teams have been dramatically better prepared than Ryan's once they see each other up close and personal.
This time there's a wild card, of course. Playing on Thanksgiving night means each side only had three full days to prepare and to implement any opponent-specific portion of the gameplan, which could force the course of action in any number of directions. The Jets typically try to throw at least one new wrinkle at Brady every time they see him, so the short week could limit their opportunity to implement such a plan. However, if the Patriots have proven to be the superior adjusters over the past three years, the time crunch could just as well level the playing field for the Jets because New England won't have as much time to identify and plan a full attack targeting New York's flaws.
Or it could be some combination of the two, as Belichick apparently anticipates.
"They'll give us a couple looks that are a little different than what they've shown," said the coach. "It will be something that we've seen before or something that we've seen them do somewhere along the line and we'll make some kind of adjustment to it. I can't imagine they'll be able to put in an entire new defense in a day and a half."
"They'll have something new for us; they always do," added Brady. "They always play us differently than the way we thought they were going to play us and that's the way it's going to be. It's about using our time wisely and then once you get in the game, see how it plays out and adjust to what they do."
Based on history, even Ryan would have to admit the Patriots should like their chances if that's what tonight comes down to.
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OVERRATED: Stephen Hill. The Jets traded two draft picks to select the receiver in April's second round, though since dropping a key pass at Foxborough on Oct. 21, he's caught only two balls. For the season he's snagged only 14 of the 36 attempts thrown his way.
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UNDERRATED: Desperation. At 4-6, the Jets know that another loss would essentially put New York's playoff hopes on the brink. "We're going to focus on our opponents specifically, but anything we do, we're behind where we have to be," Ryan said. "We can only focus on ourselves and just find a way to punch it. We earned where we are, and we just have to find a way to punch our way out. That's it." That type of desperation can sometimes make for a dangerous foe.
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KEEP AN EYE ON ...: Aaron Hernandez. During his brief return last month his route running and lateral bounce showed he wasn't fully healed. If he plays tonight - as appeared possible as of Wednesday - watch for those indicators. Seeing a full-strength Hernandez would certainly allay the fears of some fans with Gronkowski absent after breaking his forearm.
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KEY MATCHUP: Stevan Ridley vs. Jets defense. Only two teams have yielded more rushing yards than New York, and without Gronkowski run/pass balance could be as important as ever for the Patriots. If New England establishes Ridley, it's hard to see it losing.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: The Patriots have the NFL's worst third-down defense, allowing enemies to convert on 46 percent of opportunities - though the Jets aren't much better. They're third-worst, at 42.9 percent.
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Dave D’Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio