PATRIOTS HAVE MUCH EASIER PATH TO DIVISION TITLEBy Chris Forsberg
In dropping back-to-back games -- a rarity in these parts during the Belichick/Brady era -- the New England Patriots fumbled away an opportunity to open some breathing room atop the AFC East standings. And while they'll enter Week 10 with the same record as the Bills and Jets, make no mistake: New England remains the favorite to win the division.
Why? The Patriots have the easiest path to the finish line. As teams make the turn for the back nine of the NFL season, no squad in the league has an easier slate in the second half of the year than the Patriots. New England's remaining opponents own a mere .369 winning percentage. The Patriots can make up for stumbles against some of the league's brass by beating up on the weak sisters (we're looking at you, Indy, Miami and Denver).
True, the Jets (10th-easiest remaining schedule, .469 winning percentage) don't have a particularly daunting slate either, with a number of common opponents. But the pressure is on New York on Sunday because the Jets dropped the first meeting between the teams. A loss would essentially give New England a two-game cushion on New York given the head-to-head tiebreaker rules.
The Patriots have done little to inspire much confidence in recent weeks, their once unstoppable offense sputtering with alarming frequency, and quarterback Tom Brady has not been himself lately (10 interceptions already this season, this after throwing just four last year). But New England continues to chalk up its recent struggles to a simple lack of execution, and it's hard to imagine that focus will be an issue under the national spotlight on Sunday Night Football. This is the sort of matchup that typically brings out the best in the Patriots.
Even still, here are two keys for the Patriots moving forward that could ensure they clinch another division crown:
Value the ball: After setting an NFL record with a mere 10 giveaways last season and finishing plus-28 in turnover differential, the Patriots have given the ball away eight times in their three losses this season. Ball security and better decision-making by Brady will go a long way to aiding both the offense and defense.
Strides on defense: While they've survived off a bend-but-don't-break approach that's seen inspired red zone play, the Patriots still have to tighten up on defense -- they are on pace to allow the most passing yards in league history (and teams are throwing against them with complete disregard for offensive balance).
The Patriots and Jets might very well see each other a third time this season, but if New England makes a few tweaks and takes advantage of its schedule, it should be the one with division bragging rights.
Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots and Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.
REX & CO. READY TO DISPLACE PATS ATOP AFC EASTBy Mike Mazzeo
Here's something I didn't think I'd find myself saying three weeks ago: The New York Jets will win the AFC East this season.
I know what many of you are thinking. "OK, pal. Whatever you say."
Understandable. The Patriots still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and that gives them an advantage in Sunday's matchup and for the division. But while New England is trying to recover from a shocking last-minute defeat at the hands of the Giants, the Jets are absolutely rolling.
They've won three straight games after losing three in a row, and have rediscovered their identity as a "ground and pound" offense, their running game setting up Mark Sanchez's play-action passing.
Consider this: In the Jets' 27-11 demolition of Buffalo on Sunday, New York employed two-back sets on more than 60 percent of its snaps, with Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson powering through the backfield behind big fullback John Conner. As a result, Sanchez went 11-for-12 on play-action throws.
On defense, the Jets are back to where Rex Ryan wants them to be: near the top of the rankings. In their past three games, Gang Green has surrendered just 38 points. The Jets certainly don't get to the quarterback like Big Blue does, but they're able to confuse opposing passers with a variety of schemes and looks. Plus, Darrelle Revis pretty much negates the opposition's best receiver.
And don't forget Mike Westhoff's special-teams unit, which is as good as any in the NFL.
Both the Jets and Patriots have pretty favorable second-half schedules, so it seems likely that both will make the playoffs. But if the Jets are going to win the division, they'll have to beat New England on Sunday.
I say it happens.
The Patriots haven't finished second in the AFC East since 2008.
But I think the Jets change that.
Ryan won't win an Oscar for playing a Patriots fan in an upcoming Adam Sandler movie, but he can win a division title this season.
As for a Super Bowl? Well, that's a whole different story
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.