JETS // PATRIOTS OVERVIEW
While the Patriots do not quite look like the sharp, well-oiled units of the last few years, this team is still a fluky, last-second miracle touchdown by the Dolphins shy of playing for home field advantage throughout the playoffs this weekend, and they have gotten enough help that they are closing in on yet another first-round bye — needing only a win this week. While the Pats have been installed as 13.5 point favorites this week, however, the road is not guaranteed to be easy against a Jets team that has played well the last couple weeks behind a fast-improving Sam Darnold. Surprisingly, the Jets (who have scored 38 points at home against Green Bay, 22 point at home against Houston, and 27 points on the road against Buffalo across the last three weeks) carry the second-lowest Vegas-implied team total on the slate right now, at only 15.5. It will be interesting to see how this game shapes up, as the Patriots have allowed the 10th fewest points per game this year, but they have allowed the 12th most yards. Working in the Patriots’ favor is their strong play at home this year, where they are 7-0 with an average of 32.1 points scored and 18.6 allowed (compared to a 3-5 record on the road, with an average of 21.6 points scored and 24.0 allowed).
JETS PASS OFFENSE
Since coming back from the foot injury that cost him Weeks 10-13 (with the Jets seemingly milking the injury a bit to create some extra time off), exciting rookie Sam Darnold has returned with a much better grasp and command of the Jets’ offense, and with a lot more confidence in his ability to execute the throws he needs to execute. Along the way, offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates has taken the training wheels off a bit, allowing Darnold to attempt 14 passes of 20+ yards across the last three weeks. In this stretch, Darnold has completed 64 of 97 passes (66.0%), with six touchdowns and only one interception. His 7.9 yards per pass attempt in this stretch would rank ninth in the NFL among all NFL passing attacks if it had held across the entire season.
While the production has been pretty for Darnold, however — and while the downfield passing is certainly a nice touch (and has freed up space on some of the underneath looks that the Jets were too heavily focused on for much of the season) — one element that is likely to go overlooked is the actual effectiveness of Darnold’s downfield passing in this stretch. Darnold has completed only four of his 14 passes of 20+ yards since returning — with one touchdown and one interception. This is a quietly difficult spot for Darnold’s still-raw downfield ball, as the Bears are the only team in football that has allowed a lower completion rate on downfield passes this year than the Patriots, while the Bears and Bills are the only teams that have allowed a lower passer rating. Only the Dolphins have more interceptions on downfield passes than the Patriots. With the Patriots playing a man-heavy coverage scheme and ranking an embarrassing 30th in sacks and 31st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, they have faced more downfield passes than any team in football, so there is opportunity for the Jets to win downfield through a war of attrition (last week, Robert Foster lost a ball in the sun that would have gone for an 82-yard touchdown, and he nearly beat Stephon Gilmore for another downfield attempt that would have gone for a touchdown), but as with last week when we preached caution in this space on The Great Backyard Offense of the Bills, it should be noted that this is ultimately a difficult spot for Darnold and top (only) weapon Robby Anderson.
In good news for Anderson: he is literally all the Jets have at this point, with Quincy Enunwa once again looking doubtful to play. Anderson has recent target counts of 7 // 11 // 13 — with the latter two games coming with Enunwa on the sidelines. Anderson’s 32.0% target share across the last three weeks is nearly enough to put him into matchup-proof territory, with his floor looking nearly as good as his ceiling. It will be tougher than normal for him to reach his ceiling; but as long as the targets remain in the double-digits, he should post a high enough floor that he won’t wreck your roster even if he fails.
Working as the de facto number two behind Anderson has been Chris Herndon, who has target counts of 4 // 7 across the last two weeks, and who went 7-57-0 when these teams met in Week 12 with Josh McCown under center for the Jets. Patrick Chung has been solid in tight end coverage this year, but he is still a “weakest link” with Gilmore and Jason McCourty both playing at an elite level and trailing opponents’ top two wideouts most weeks. Herndon is a tough sell on FanDuel, where it is inexcusably easy to get up to George Kittle for only $900 more; but on DraftKings, a case can be made for him as a solid salary-saver, with a likely range of six to 12 points, and with a slim path to upside for more.
With Jermaine Kearse failing to produce all season and questionable this week with an achilles injury, there is nothing to target behind Anderson and Kearse beyond guessing and hoping.
JETS RUN OFFENSE
After operating with a two-man backfield all season, the Jets surprisingly turned Elijah McGuire-heavy last week, allowing him to take the field for 51 of a possible 60 snaps and giving him 17 touches to only three for Trenton Cannon. With McGuire playing in the lead since Isaiah Crowell went down and now potentially set to be a near every-down player this week, he retains some appeal in spite of a matchup against a Patriots team that has allowed the second fewest rushing touchdowns in the NFL. Working against McGuire is the fact that he has not topped 60 rushing yards in a game this season — even with recent rush attempt totals of 17 // 18 // 14 — with his four touchdowns across the last three weeks floating his value (and raising his price). Working in McGuire’s favor is a Patriots defense that is content to give up rushing yards between the 20s, with the fourth most yards allowed per carry in the league. McGuire will likely need to beat this matchup for a touchdown in order to truly come alive, but with three catches in three consecutive games and a locked-in role in this offense, he carries a decent floor even without the touchdowns, and he remains inexpensive enough that he can still be considered as a bet-on-usage, hope-for-touchdown play.
PATRIOTS PASS OFFENSE
The Jets’ blitz-heavy defense enters this game ranked 16th in yards allowed per pass attempt, with a middling 25 passing touchdowns allowed on the year. The Jets have allowed the seventh fewest running back targets in the league, and no team in football has allowed fewer targets to tight ends (with stud safety Jamal Adams keying a unit that has incredibly faced only 71 tight end targets through 15 games — for an astonishingly low average of only 4.7 tight end targets per game), but this has left the Jets facing the most wide receiver targets in the NFL. Only the Saints have allowed more catches to wideouts than the Jets have allowed. This defense has allowed the second most yards and the 12th most touchdowns to the position.
To further isolate things: the Jets have been most susceptible (by far) to slot receivers — as explored in this space since the start of the season — particularly getting burned by interior route-runners who can work the intermediate areas of the field and can work from one side of the field to the other. While the Patriots have scaled back passing volume the last few weeks (and will almost certainly look to do the same once again this week in a game they should ultimately control), this all sets up well for Julian Edelman, who is the last man standing in this wideout corps. Edelman has target counts of 12 // 11 // 10 across the last three weeks, and he is a strong bet for double-digit looks once again in this spot. Edelman doesn’t carry the big yardage upside of other high-priced wideouts (he has maxed out this year at 104 yards), but he did pick up 84 yards on only four receptions (five targets) the last time these teams met, and he has stepped up for three touchdowns across his last five games. It’s not crazy to think he could crack 100 yards and score a touchdown in this spot — giving him some ceiling to go with his high floor.
PATRIOTS RUN OFFENSE
When these teams last met, Tom Brady threw the ball only 31 times, while Sony Michel took 21 carries and James White added nine carries of his own. The Patriots have now dropped all the way down to 25th in pass play rate on the season, and their 52.94% pass play rate across the last three weeks would rank higher than only Seattle, Tennessee, and Baltimore on the year. Last week against Buffalo, Michel carried the ball 18 times, Rex Burkhead touched the ball 17 times (13 carries), and White touched the ball 10 times (eight carries). With Gronk continuing to hobble around and Josh Gordon gone, we should continue to see the Patriots lean run-heavy — mixing in all three of these guys throughout the game.
The Jets rank 21st in yards allowed per carry and have given up the ninth most touchdowns on the ground to enemy backs — while limiting running back production and scoring through the air. While White is good enough to beat even the most difficult RB receiving matchups, his role in this offense has shrunk since Burkhead returned, and this matchup sets up best for Michel first and Burkhead second. Frustratingly, volume is capped on all these guys — making all three difficult to bet on with confidence — while Michel continues to see no involvement in the pass game (seven catches all season). But with White playing 29 snaps last week, Burkhead playing 25, and Michel playing 23, all three should be given opportunities to hit, while Michel’s red zone role (sixth most red zone carries in the NFL this year) gives him enough touchdown upside to be considered in tourneys.
Nothing in this game jumps off the page, with Darnold // Anderson // Herndon // McGuire all entering a tough road environment against a team that limits scoring at home, and with the Patriots failing to produce anything resembling slate-breaking upside on their adaptable, spread-the-wealth offense, but there is still enough to like here from an overall environment for these pieces to be considered. I’ll likely leave Darnold alone, as his big Week 16 game will probably draw ownership attention his way, and this is a much tougher spot than he faced last week (Darnold was my big miss on the Player Grid last week, as I didn’t really get onto him myself until late Saturday night when I built my eighth and final Wildcat roster around him; this week, he should stand out quite a bit more to the field). Anderson should again draw high ownership, and while this is a tougher spot than he faced last week, the volume is locked-in enough for him to be considered anyway. He’s unlikely to fail (the one concern is that a successful, run-heavy game from the Patriots could limit volume for the Jets) — though his chances of another slate-breaking score are more slim as well. Herndon and McGuire are solid, but unspectacular. The same goes for Edelman, Michel, Burkhead, and White on the other side of this game. Edelman carries a high floor and has a path to ceiling (though others priced around him are likelier to find a slate-breaking score than Edelman is). Michel has a good shot at a score or two — but he’ll need to get there in order to truly matter. Burkhead and White will spend enough time on the field to be given opportunities to hit, but neither is guaranteed to produce, making each a play-the-volume and hope-things-work-out option this week.