The last time these teams met in late October, the Patriots and Jets were both 3-3 and there was plenty of uncertainty atop the AFC East.
Now, a month later, and New England (7-3) comfortably leads the division and New York (4-6) is trying to stave off the inevitable late-season unraveling. But Jets coach Rex Ryan fancies himself something of a motivational speaker, so after the team won for the first time in four tries last Sunday in St. Louis to get to 4-6, they'll be ready to play when the Patriots take the field at MetLife Stadium on Thursday night.
But these teams know each other well and Pats coach Bill Belichick has never been one to get caught up in the off-field silliness that usually precludes these matchups. In fact, he usually takes the opposite approach and this week was no different.
In his weekly conference call with reporters, Belichick could not say enough good things about beleaguered Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.
“He played really well against St. Louis,” Belichick said (via ESPN New York). “I mean obviously he played well against us, most importantly.”
There's more, of course:
“(Sanchez) makes all the throws, athletic in the pocket, he’s always a threat to run,” Belichick continued. “I think the play-action game is good. Using all the receivers, getting the ball to his backs and tight ends. [TE Dustin] Keller’s certainly been a good guy for him to get back here the last couple weeks. He’s done a good job of audible-ing, checking plays at the line of scrimmage as part of their package. I think he’s done a good job.”
We're guessing that Sanchez isn't Belichick's main concern heading into this game. In fact, we suspect the game plan is to shut down the Jets' running game (which showed signs of life for the first time last week) and force Sanchez to win the game with his arm. New England had to be pleased with cornerback Aqib Talib's debut against the Colts and Devin McCourty seems reenergized after his move to safety. Plus, the Jets are a pretty dreadful passing team.
“We just know we have to keep rushing them and be ready to play,” McCourty said. “We know at any time he’s a good quarterback. He can make plays with his arm. He’s a mobile guy that can get the ball down the field once he gets on the move. For us, we just prepare. He’s someone we see twice a year. We just prepare and get ready to go.”
For an idea of just how much things have changed over the last four weeks (and the last 12 months), Tim Tebow is no longer a pregame talking point. He's been relegated to punt-protector duty and a handful of mostly ineffective offensive plays a game.
Of course, that doesn't mean former players-turned-talking heads won't bring it up. Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin, who played for the Pats and Jets, thinks Tebow deserves more opportunities.
"Personally, maybe, because he's there and I believe in giving guys an opportunity," he said on Tuesday on NFL Network (via ESPN). "It's not for me to question the head coach’s decision. The way things work out, if Mark isn’t playing well and things don’t go well, Tebow will be in there eventually."
But Martin conceded that Ryan has to do what's best for the team.
"It's important for a head coach to have faith in his starting quarterback," he said. "When (Rex Ryan) feels Mark has taken the team as far as he can take the team, he will make that change. Until then, we will continue to see Mark Sanchez."
These are conversations Belichick has never had to concern himself with, and that probably goes a long way in explaining New England's success.