EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — When the NFL schedule was released in April, two late-season showdowns between the New England Patriots and New York Jets made for some possible intrigue in the race for AFC East supremacy.
Well, not even close.
Tom Brady’s bunch is rolling toward its eighth straight division title and 13th in 14 years. Meanwhile, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the sputtering Jets (3-7) are looking at a sixth consecutive season without a playoff appearance.
The game even got flexed out of a prime-time slot on Sunday night. That doesn’t mean that Bill Belichick and the Patriots (8-2) are taking their latest matchup at MetLife Stadium lightly.
“It’s always a tough game,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “I think Bill said that seven of the last eight games are like one score or overtime that we played them. It’s going to be a tough challenge because I think both teams know each other well.”
New England has won eight of the past 10 meetings, but New York came away with a 26-20 overtime victory last December. The Jets are looking to beat the Patriots in two straight for the first time since winning the last matchup in 2008 and the first of the 2009 season, which would be a rare positive in a dismal season so far.
“I think it would be, especially them being one of the top teams in the league now, this would definitely give us more confidence, I feel, as a team coming out with a win on Sunday,” Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “I think we’d be able to feed off that.”
And, Belichick is right: Other than a 49-19 drubbing by New England in 2012, the teams have been closely matched lately. There have been margins of one point (Patriots 17-16, 2014), two points (Patriots 27-25, 2014), and three by three points (Patriots 29-26 in OT, 2012; Patriots 13-10, 2013; Jets 30-27 in OT, 2013). There were New York’s six-point win last December and a seven-point Patriots win (30-23) in the first meeting last season.
“Everything we do this week is going to be very important toward the outcome,” Belichick said, “based on how tight all of those other games have been.”
Here are some things to know for the latest Patriots-Jets matchup, in which a New England victory would make it the first former AFL franchise with 500 total wins:
BRADY KEEPS ROLLING: After sitting out the first two practices with a knee ailment, Brady was back on Friday .
The Patriots star is having a fantastic season and could tie Peyton Manning for the most total wins by a QB with 200. He also needs just 57 yards passing to become the fifth player in NFL history to reach 60,000. Oh, and another win over the Jets would give him 22 against his rivals, joining Brett Favre as the only quarterback with at least that many against two teams.
“We all know what a great player he is and even in a historical context what a great player he is,” Fitzpatrick said. “But to be able to take the hits week after week and continue to be out there … it’s amazing to see a guy like that, that just looks better than ever.”
FITZ IS BACK: After sitting out a game with a sprained left knee, Fitzpatrick returns as the Jets’ starting quarterback.
Bryce Petty, who filled in for a game while making his first NFL start, returns to the sideline. While some fans and media think it’s the wrong move by Todd Bowles, the coach insists he wants to win and believes Fitzpatrick gives the Jets the best chance to do so against the Patriots.
“I’m not into the other argument right now,” Bowles said of those who think New York should give Petty playing time to develop. “I’m into winning ballgames.”
LOTS OF OPTIONS: The Patriots’ offense got a boost last week when running back Dion Lewis returned at San Francisco after having surgery for a torn knee ligament last year.
Lewis was on the field for 21 of 76 offensive snaps in New England’s win over the 49ers, giving the Patriots three running back options — along with LeGarrette Blount and James White — in the game plan for really the first time this season.
“We’ve got three guys that all have different roles and I think that all three guys impacted the game in a positive way, whether that was with the ball or without it,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “We’ll try to build off of that, but I have confidence in all three of those guys and look forward to continue to use all three of them the best we can each week.”
THIRD-DOWN PROWESS: Whether it has been the return of Brady to the offense or tweaks in the play calling, one big component in New England’s offensive success over the past month has been its production on third down. The Patriots rank second in the NFL, converting on 65 of 134 (48.5 percent) attempts.
Belichick is expecting a lot of different looks and blitzes from the Jets. That could mean even more use for Danny Amendola, who has been one of Brady’s go-to receivers both on third down and in the red zone.
“He’s a really dependable, consistent player; tough,” Belichick said. “He seems like he always has his best plays in those critical situations when you need them most.”
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