With straight faces, the New England Patriots always find something to praise about their next opponent, no matter how bad that team’s record may be.
“They’ve got a real good defense,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Wednesday. “We’re anticipating their best game.”
“We have to play our best football to win,” defensive end Chandler Jones said, “and I truly believe that.”
Even when the opponent is the New York Jets?
At least there’s evidence that the Patriots (11-3) could be in a close game on the road against the Jets (3-11) on Sunday.
Four of the last five matchups have been decided by three points or fewer.
“I know the records are what they are, but we don’t look at it like that,” Brady said. “We lost going into the Meadowlands last year.”
That meeting was the only one of the past five that the Jets won. And it took a penalty on a new rule for them to accomplish that.
Nick Folk missed a 56-yard field goal attempt in overtime last year, but defensive tackle Chris Jones was called for pushing a teammate “into the opponents’ formation.” Folk tried again and connected from 42 yards for a 30-27 victory.
Folk had another chance to beat the Patriots this season when he lined up for a 58-yard attempt on the final play. This time, Jones blocked it and New England won 27-25.
Their first meeting last year that wasn’t decided until Aqib Talib intercepted Geno Smith’s pass with 38 seconds remaining.
Both teams struggled on offense in that game, combining for 24 first downs. And quarterbacks Brady and Smith each had a completion rate of less than 50 percent.
“They always play us tough since I’ve been here in 2009,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. “I know the day after I play those guys I’m pretty sore.”
In this year’s game in Foxborough, the Jets rushed for 218 yards and held an advantage of more than 2-to-1 in time of possession.
Since then, the Patriots are 6-1 with five of the wins by at least 22 points. The Jets have lost three games by at least 20.
“I don’t know why those scores go the way they do against other teams,” Brady said. “Against us, they always seem to be close. You just don’t want to go down there and have a bunch of poor execution like we’ve done in the past.”
The Jets have been competitive recently, starting with a 20-13 win over Pittsburgh. Since then, they were routed by Buffalo 38-3 then played three close games, losses of 16-13 to Miami and 30-24 to Minnesota in overtime before beating Tennessee 16-11.
The Patriots can clinch home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs if they win and Denver loses Monday night at Cincinnati. The Broncos (11-3) lost this season to the Patriots, the first tiebreaker.
So what’s a greater motivation? Staying atop the AFC or beating a division rival?
“I think the fact that it is the Jets,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “You don’t have any problem getting up for these guys.”
Or, according to coach Bill Belichick, for any opponent.
“Our biggest rival is whoever we play that week,” he said.
NOTES: The Patriots signed tight end Steve Maneri to the 53-man roster and placed defensive tackle Dominique Easley on injured reserve. Maneri was an offensive lineman on the 2010 Patriots practice squad and spent part of training camp with them this season. Easley was a first-round draft pick this year from Florida. … Quarterback Garrett Gilbert was signed to the practice squad. The St. Louis Rams drafted him in the sixth round from Southern Methodist this year and released him on Oct. 28. … Slater is one of eight finalists for the NFL’s new Sportsmanship Award. “That’s very humbling for me,” he said. “There are a lot of great character men in this league.”