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December 24, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Gang Green Should Go Long

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 24, 2004

To say that Sunday's rematch between the Jets and Patriots is a big game is like saying there will be people in Times Square on New Year's Eve. This game means everything to both teams. The outcome will not only define their playoff fate, but the psychological effects of a victory - or defeat - will be dramatic for each.

First, of course, are the playoff implications. New England's surprising loss at Miami last Monday night makes it almost impossible for them to clinch the top seed in the AFC playoffs. It can only happen if the Patriots win both of their remaining games and the Steelers lose both of theirs.

What's worse, if the Patriots lose on Sunday they could drop another spot in the seedings. A loss coupled with a win by the Chargers over the Colts would move San Diego into the second spot and drop the Pats into third.

Should this scenario play out, New England's road to the Super Bowl will have changed in the span of two weeks from two home playoff games to one at home and two on the road.

The Jets would clinch a wild card berth if they beat the Patriots, but this game means much more than that. It's a chance to vanquish their biggest rival, to make a statement that they deserve to be regarded as one of the league's elite teams. Quarterback Chad Pennington complained bitterly this week that the press hasn't given the Jets enough credit for their successes this year. A win over the Patriots would do the trick.

Those Patriots are coming off a painful defeat in Miami, just their second loss in 25 regular season games. The team that has at times seemed infallible showed some startling vulnerabilities, and their quest to win three Super Bowls in four years has been cast into doubt.

Tom Brady, a quarterback who has epitomized the phrase "cool under pressure," completely self destructed, throwing two horrible interceptions in the final three minutes, allowing Miami to erase an 11-point deficit. Brady's meltdown was the only weakness that Miami exposed. This game wasn't just a loss. It was a blueprint for how to beat them.

New England's secondary has been ravaged by injuries. One starting cornerback - Tyrone Poole - is on injured reserve and the other - Ty Law - has been sidelined with a foot injury. That forces the Patriots to start struggling rookies Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland, and banged-up reserve Asante Samuel.

In passing situations, they've been relying on wide receiver Troy Brown to cover the slot receiver and linebacker Don Davis to play the nickel back.

Brown has impressed folks by making three interceptions as a converted defender, but over the last few weeks, it has become clear that his coverage skills are lacking. Miami's A.J. Feeely, whom we might charitably call a mediocre quarterback, picked on Brown repeatedly in the Dolphins' fourth-quarter comeback, including the game-winning 21-yard touchdown pass to Derrius Thompson.

Cincinnati's Carson Palmer and Jon Kitna did the same thing against the Patriots the previous week, racking up 328 passing yards and three touchdown passes in a 35-28 loss.

Receiver Santana Moss had a big game last week after complaining that not enough plays were called in his direction. He showed that you don't always need to throw the ball 30 yards down field to make a 30-yard gain. You can throw underneath to a speedy receiver like Moss and let him pick up the rest of the yards after the catch.

That's what he did for his first touchdown against Seattle, and that's how the Jets should use him against New England this weekend.

The Bengals and Dolphins were both able to spread the field with three or four receivers, force the Patriots to put those weak defensive backs on the field, and attack them with quick, short passes.

The temptation to throw the ball deep against New England is a trap, because they love to blitz. With a deep drop, they're going to get to your quarterback often enough to beat you if you try the vertical game. With quick passes, the ball is away before the pressure gets to the quarterback.

Pennington doesn't have great arm strength, but he's a very accurate passer who makes quick decisions in the pocket. He's also exceptionally deceptive with the play action pass, getting defenders to bite on the fake handoff and hitting a receiver for a quick gain. His style of play makes him well suited to exploit this New England defense.

The Patriots defense has struggled against teams with strong offensive lines. Only four of their victories came by less than 10 points, and each of those opponents - Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and the Jets - get extremely good play from their line.

The Jets front five has done a tremendous job of protecting the quarterback. In Pennington's 11 starts this year, he has only been sacked nine times. Offensive coordinator Paul Hackett needs to take advantage of that protection and continue to run the short passing attack that was so successful last week.

This game could very well hinge on the matchup of New England's high-powered offense (third in points scored) against the Jets stingy defense (second in points allowed).The Jets must be aggressive and physical, using the blitz to disrupt Brady's passing rhythm and plugging the gaps to contain running back Corey Dillon.

Gang Green appears up to the challenge. The defense hasn't allowed more than 20 points since week two, and held this same Patriots team to 13 points back in October. It's going to be up to the Jets offense to exploit the vulnerabilities in the New England defense and score enough points to make that defensive effort good enough for a win.

With earlier losses at Pittsburgh and New England, the Jets would be 0-3 in big games this year should they drop this one. That will weigh on their collective psyche as they head for what would likely be a tough first round playoff game in San Diego or Indianapolis.

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