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Give me five for Foxborough

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  December 6, 2010 01:06 PM

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Rumor has it that the Patriots and Jets are actually going to play a football game tonight and not just pontificate about playing one. It seems like the hype has been building for this clash of AFC East enemies for 11 weeks and not 11 days. Even the NBA's interminable playoff series don't take this long to play out. Finally, the anticipation is coming to an end and the action is about to begin.

The game is huge for both teams (division lead, inside track for homefield, general bragging rights), and here are five players who will play a large role in determining its outcome:

1. Mark Sanchez -- Which Jets quarterback shows up tonight, On the Mark or Off the Mark? It's still hard to buy that this is the quarterback of a Super Bowl team, even with his clutch finishes this season. The game plan of most teams that face the Jets is to make Sanchez beat them. That tells you they don't think he can. This is still a young quarterback who can be coaxed into miscues and mistakes (see last year when he turned it over five times in Foxborough or the eight interceptions he has in his last six games). You wouldn't know that Sanchez is a work in progress from how he played against the Patriots the first time, when he completed 70-percent of his passes and threw for three touchdowns with no interceptions. If Sanchez is that efficient again then the Patriots lose. But if New England can put Peyton Manning into a funk, there is no reason they can't scramble Sanchez's brain.

2. Aaron Hernandez -- The Patriots rookie tight end has not been much of a factor of late -- he as two catches for 26 yards and a touchdown in his last three games after a two-touchdown day against the Browns -- but that has to change tonight. The Jets are a team that like to bring pressure, and that often forces man coverage scenarios, which is where Hernandez excels with his unique blend of wide receiver-like speed and tight end size. Hernandez had a 100-yard receiving day the first time the two teams met, and his 46-yard reception in that game is the longest pass play the Jets have allowed all season. He is a matchup problem for the Jets, who even tried cornerback Antonio Cromartie on him. Two of the five 100-yard receiving days the Jets have allowed this year have come via tight ends (Hernandez and Houston's Joel Dressen). Hernandez allows the Patriots, who have been stung by New York tight end Dustin Keller, to provide the Jets a little taste of their own medicine.

3. Deion Branch -- The Patriots remade their offense on the fly because of the debacle in the New Meadowlands the first time these teams met. Randy Moss ran a permanent out route, and wide receiver Deion Branch ran a comeback to Foxborough. The prevailing theory is that Moss, targeted 10 times in the first game with just two catches, was largely to blame for the loss because of his one-dimensional nature. It didn't have anything to do with the excellent defense the Jets played. We'll see if Branch -- and by extension Tom Brady -- is better equipped to deal with the Jets' pass defense this time. If the Jets cover Branch one-on-one with Cromartie, that is a matchup that Branch has to win. Cris Carter is wrong. Branch is way more than "just a guy," and he's certainly no "slouch" either, but there have been some games where teams have been able to remove him from the passing attack (San Diego, Minnesota, Cleveland). This can't be one of those games.

4. Darrelle Revis -- No more Moss-Revis drama. My guess is that Revis Island will be floating tonight and that Revis won't be so predictably locked on to one receiver as he was when he was single-covering Moss. The conventional wisdom is that removing Moss from the equation mutes the impact of Revis. I disagree. Now, Brady has to find Revis on each and every play instead of knowing he's surgically-attached to Moss. It makes Revis, who is rounding into form after early-season hamstring woes, more dangerous and could also help the Jets disguise their coverages. Who Revis covers and when will play a big part in the outcome of this game. He is capable of taking away Brady's two favorite receivers, Branch and Wes Welker, who destroyed the Jets last year with 15 catches for 192 yards. But he can't take away both at the same time.

5. Eric Smith -- Jim Leonhard's broken leg puts the erudite Smith in the spotlight as the quarterback of the secondary. He had just returned to the starting lineup against the Bengals, replacing Brodney Pool. Now he has to work with Pool in the Jets' secondary. Smith, who turned down Ivy League offers, is going to have to match wits with Brady and make sure the Jets' defensive communication doesn't go haywire when the Patriots go no-huddle. He's also going to be charged with the task of covering the Patriots' rookie tight ends, Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. That's a task he struggled with in the first game, forcing the Jets to switch to Pool in the second half.

In addition, Smith is a key special teams performer for the Jets, as he blocked a punt that New York returned for a touchdown last year against the Patriots and has a punt block this season. Smith is a bright guy, but that's a lot of information for anyone to process. You can bet the Patriots will test his mental capacity and physical ability tonight in place of Leonhard.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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