Coming off their best win of the season, one might expect the talk to center around the improved Patriots defense and an offense that came through during a time it was needed most.
Understandably, however, much of the discussion around the Patriots this week has focused on a mounting list of injuries, including a season-ending pectoral tear to linebacker Jerod Mayo, the tackling machine who has twice been named to the Pro Bowl.
While Mayo's injury was the most severe in terms of games it will force him to miss, the team is also dealing with the uncertain status of cornerback Aqib Talib (hip; doubtful), while wide receiver Danny Amendola (concussion), defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (knee) and Leon Washington (ankle) have all been ruled out for Week 7.
Those all come on top of the biggest injury issue of the season, tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm), who has yet to return to game action but has been medically cleared to play Sunday. That was the final major hurdle for Gronkowski to overcome in his recovery process, and while there's a difference between being medically cleared and being guaranteed to play, all signs point to a Gronk return this weekend.
Regardless of who plays for the Patriots, it won't come easy. Despite a forgettable Week 6 showing, the Jets have played tough this season, nearly defeating the Patriots back in Week 2 at Gillette Stadium.
The two teams will now go at it at MetLife Stadium, and here's what we'll be watching for:
1. Impact of Gronk. If we operate under the presumption that Gronkowski will in fact return to the field, the next question becomes what does it mean for him team? Well, simply, a lot. The Patriots have hardly relied on the tight ends as pass catchers this season like they have with Gronkowski on the field, and the results in the red zone demonstrate how badly they've missed the burly fourth-year pro. In 22 trips to the red zone, the Patriots have just nine touchdowns scored. In 2012, they were the best red zone offense in football in terms of percentage of touchdowns scored. While Gronkowski could be limited in his return in terms of snaps played and usage, simply having him back on the field is a critical boon for an offense that may have regained its swagger late last Sunday.
2. Filling big voids on both sides. The Patriots are beat up on both sides of the ball, as they'll be without wide receiver Amendola (concussion), stud defensive tackle Kelly (knee) and likely cornerback Talib (hip; he's listed as doubtful to play). How they fill these voids, particularly Talib if he doesn't play, will be a primary storyline entering the game. Will safety Devin McCourty be shifted back to his natural position at cornerback? Or might the Patriots stick with the trio of Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington and rookie Logan Ryan as their top cornerbacks to account for when the Jets try to spread things out a bit? The team has dealt with Amendola's absence before, as he missed three games earlier this season due to a groin injury.
3. Defensive communication. As if those injuries weren't enough, the Patriots are now without both of their defensive captains, with Mayo sidelined for the year due to a torn pectoral muscle. Beyond what he does once the ball in snapped, Mayo also shoulders so much responsibility in between plays. He was the on-field defensive quarterback, wearing the earpiece in his helmet to communicate with coordinator Matt Patricia. It looks like Dont'a Hightower will take on those duties this week, but it'll be an 11-man effort on each play to transfer the calls from the sideline to each defender on the field. Top draft choice Jamie Collins and veteran Dane Fletcher could be in for additional defensive snaps as well.
4. Can the run game solve the Jets D? A week after Stevan Ridley's best game of the season, he faces arguably the top defensive front seven in the NFL right now in terms of stopping the run. The Jets are led by defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon “Snacks” Harrison and rookie Sheldon Richardson up front, with middle linebacker David Harris providing a Mayo-like impact on the second level. The Patriots' interior offensive line will be very much put to the test if it hopes to establish a rhythm on the ground early. The Patriots mustered just 54 yards on 24 attempts during a Week 2 meeting.
5. Keep the turnover streak alive. For 33 consecutive games, the Patriots have forced a turnover, the longest active streak in the NFL and a key catalyst behind some of their recent defensive success. Back in Week 2, it was three fourth-quarter interceptions of Jets quarterback Geno Smith that sealed the 13-10 win. It's been something of the tale of two Smiths through six games, as he's managed three wins as a starter and has just three interceptions in those games. In the other three games, all losses, he's thrown seven. The Patriots need to pressure Smith into more bad decisions, a recipe for success against the rookie.