W2W4: Jets at Patriots

The New York Jets play their first division game Thursday night against their top nemesis, the New England Patriots. Kickoff is 8:25 p.m. at Gillette Stadium. The top storylines:

1. Don’t feed the beast: Patriots coach Bill Belichick has fielded some mediocre defenses in recent seasons, but his unit has an uncanny knack for creating turnovers. In fact, it has forced at least one in 28 consecutive games. This will be the major factor Thursday, especially with rookie Geno Smith at quarterback. Under coach Rex Ryan, the Jets are 3-0 against the Patriots when they’re equal or better in the turnover battle and 0-6 when they’re on the minus side. Seems pretty elementary, doesn’t it? For Smith, the key is to avoid third-and-long situations. That’s when Belichick gets creative with his schemes.

2. Protect the middle: The Jets had some issues last week with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inside blitzing, especially on stunts. This is an area to watch because the Patriots, led by mammoth defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, are strong up the middle. Left guard Vladimir Ducasse, who allowed one sack and a few pressures in the opener, will be a marked man. The Patriots would be crazy not to put Wilfork over Ducasse, who will need help. But it won’t be easy to slide protection to the middle, because New York has to be concerned with the defensive ends, Chandler Jones and Jet killer Rob Ninkovich, a strip-sack waiting to happen.

3. Don’t bail on the ground game: Let’s be real, the Jets will struggle to run the ball, but they have to stay committed to a balanced attack to protect Smith from being one-dimensional. If he drops back 40-plus times, they’re in trouble. Even if the running game isn’t productive, they have to stick with it. Can offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg do that? He called only 23 runs in the opener compared to 44 pass plays -- hardly a balanced attack. Now New York will be without a small element of the rushing attack: wide receiver Jeremy Kerley (concussion), who provides a perimeter threat when the Jets use him in the Wildcat.

4. Target Brady: The Jets were so afraid of the Patriots’ passing attack in the most recent meeting (the Thanksgiving fiasco) that they used five or more defensive backs on 56 of 65 snaps -- even when the Patriots were in their base offense. This time, Ryan might take the opposite approach, emphasizing pressure over coverage. With New England quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite weapons either injured or gone, the Jets should pressure him throughout the game, figuring they’ll be able to play man-to-man against his patchwork receiving corps, assuming Danny Amendola (groin) is out. Brady has never been so vulnerable. If Ryan doesn’t go after him, he’ll be missing the chance of a lifetime.

5. Chug energy drinks: The Jets will need plenty of vigor to handle the Patriots’ up-tempo offense, especially if temperatures remain unseasonably hot. The Jets struggled against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ no-huddle in the preseason, and the Patriots will go to school on that. Ryan’s defense will have to be on point with its communication. Otherwise, there will be blown coverages. Key question: Is Brady comfortable enough with his revamped supporting cast to execute a no-huddle attack? It could be tough to orchestrate on a short week. The Jets won’t be disappointed if they don’t have to play fast-break football.