After a rough week 1, BadNFL returns to the match-up where it all started: Patriots @ Jets. Except this time, I'm taking the Patriots. Although I feel quite strongly about this pick, it does potentially pit two of my early season maxims against each other: the need not to overreact to week 1 (which I may be doing), and the need to pick against excessively hyped teams (which I hope I am doing). Regardless, I expect the Pats to win handily. Here's why:
1. The Pats' passing offense will have substantial success against the Jets' secondary.
The Patriots may have the best offense in the league this year. Their offense was nearly unstoppable week 1, as they returned to their high flying ways that remind of their famous 2007 season. Brady appears rejuvenated and much more confident in his knee -- two factors that have him returning to his MVP form. They simply overwhelmed the Bengals early in week 1, leading to a game that was never in doubt.
Of course, prognosticators should tread carefully when drawing grand lessons from week 1. But I'm convinced that the Patriots' week 1 success reflected structural improvements. Adding the two exciting young TEs into the system has given their offense a new look, and Brady has more weapons than ever. Remember, the Bengals were thought to be a stout defensive club; after all, they return virtually the same secondary that totally shut down the Ravens last year (the team that the Jets just "held" to 10 points). The ease with which the Pats' generated 38 points is thus quite impressive. But most importantly, Brady is now in year 2 of his recovery from knee surgery. I think the Pats' offense is back in a major way.
Readers are no doubt thinking to themselves "but you're picking against the best defense in the league." I admit that I've been a huge fan of the Jets' defense. But I think that the Pats will have some serious success through the air. It's true that the remarkable Darrelle Revis will likely lock up Randy Moss again. But Brady just has too many other weapons, most notably Wes Welker -- who was targeted 11 times (more than Moss) in week 1 and dominated the game. He, and the rest of the Patriots' weapons, are undoubtedly salivating at the prospect of exploiting the remainder of the Jets' secondary. Anquan Boldin absolutely abused Kyle Wilson in week 1, leading to an absurd 13.1 YPA allowed by the overmatched rookie. Antonio Cromartie, on the other hand, is a high risk high reward player -- who made a spectacular interception in week 1 but also gambled and lost several times. Put simply, he's the type of player that a smart veteran QB like Brady can exploit. And the Pats look as though they're gameplanning to do just that.
None of that will matter if the Jets are able to subject Brady to unrelenting pressure. But the Jets' blitz packages may be less effective this year. FO before the year noted that teams were likely to adjust to Rex Ryan's schemes more effectively this year, and week 1 bore that out: the Jets blitzes on key third downs were totally ineffective. Moreover, they've lost Kris Jenkins again, who is one of the top nose tackles in the league and the Jets' most important defensive player not named Revis. That will undoubtedly undermine their run defense, making it harder to gear up their famous zero-coverage blitzes.
The Jets' performance against Baltimore week 1 does nothing to reassure me. Critics might point out that they forced 3 turnovers and caused 2 Flacco fumbles. But the Jets' pressure largely derived from Flacco's incompetence, not defensive brilliance. Watch this first fumble: the Ravens' line executes a quick cut-block protection, clearly anticipating a 3-step drop. Yet Flacco stands like a statue in the pocket for a full 4 seconds, his eyes never straying from a singular target down the left side of the field. Yes, the Jets get to him and knock the ball loose. As any competent defense should.
This interception to Antonio Cromartie was similarly terrible. Maybe it was a route mix-up, or maybe it was simply atrocious decisionmaking by Flacco, but he flings the ball up for grabs, off his back foot, into triple coverage. There was nothing particularly special by the Jets' defense that sparked the miscue.
Put simply, Flacco is the type of QB who will look bad against the Jets. He typically puts up bad vertical numbers, and he holds the ball too long. Tom Brady is the opposite of those two things. When he's healthy, as he seems now to be, he is adept at feeling the rush and adapting to blitzes. That spells trouble for the Jets' defense.
2. The Jets are poorly situated to exploit New England's primary vulnerability.
The concern about the Patriots heading into the season was their pass defense. Scouts, Inc. this week predicts a close Pats victory but points out that the Jets will attempt to exploit New England's somewhat soft secondary. Of course, Rex Ryan is already proclaiming the Jets' intention to throw more downfield in week 2.
There's only one problem: the Jets boast a pathetically inept passing attack. In week 1, the Jets put on their worst offensive performance in 30 years. The numbers are staggering: Sanchez was 10/21 for 74 yards, fewer than 4 yards/attempt. I absolutely abhor that I'm linking to anything that mentions Skip Bayless, but as this post points out, Sanchez only threw beyond 10 yards down the field 4 times all night! The Sanchize and the offense were so atrocious that, although the scoreboard rent 10-9, the game really never felt that close.
Some pundits have chalked up the Jets' struggles to the Ravens' superior defense. Admittedly, the Ravens have a good defense. But let's not go overboard: the Ravens' pass defense is nothing to write home about. Last year, the secondary actually performed quite poorly in most advanced metrics. The pass rush was also surprisingly anemic. Moreover, they were missing 2 of their 4 starters in the secondary last week, including their best player in Ed Reed. Despite this apparent weakness, the Jets were totally unable to exploit the Ravens' flaws.
I have little faith that they'll improve dramatically in week 2. Sanchez is not a veteran quarterback who knows how to bounce back from a bad loss; to the contrary, his confidence has to be shaken, and he's now preparing for a Bill Belichick defense on a short week. In addition, the young players in the NE secondary look much improved, and I think the Pats' pass defense, while not great, will be adequate. Certainly more than enough to stifle the uninspiring Sanchize.
THE COUNTER-ARGUMENT: THE JETS AREN'T GOING 0-2?
As stated above, the Jets, as a putative super bowl contender, will no doubt be motivated to avoid going 0-2. But I wrote before the season that I thought the Jets overrated, and week 1 did nothing to shake my belief. Remember, the Jets barely snuck into the playoffs last year; they were 7-7 entering week 16, and needed a win over the Colts' second-stringers in week 17 even to make the postseason. And the main thing they did in the offseason was downgrade their offensive line and lose backfield depth.
But a more fundamental point is that the Jets are an overhyped and distraction-infested mess right now. Rex Ryan cultivated a Hard Knocks-enabled party atmosphere in the preseason (Cowboys' fans having painful 2008 flashbacks), and they acted all offseason like they believed their own hype. They then proceeded to play like a distracted and sloppy team in week 1, a week that witnessed 125 yards of penalties and an overall lack of discipline. Maybe they'll spend this week getting focused? Nah, instead they appear to be focusing on some fiasco with a female TV reporter.
At the end of the day, one of my preseason convictions was that this is a passing league and that a big disparity in the quality of two passing offenses is a recipe for covering a big spread. This spread isn't even big, and it shouldn't be under a field goal. The last time the Pats played these Jets, they beat them by 17. Pats cover.