Following a surprisingly efficient blowout victory over the (then) 6-3 Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots moved to 7-3. This week, they'll be back on the field against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Here are the five most important things to watch for on Thanksgiving Day.
How will the short week have an effect on the game?
With the expansion of the Thursday Night Football program this season, the NFL has made the schedule so that each of its 32 teams has to play at least one game outside of the usual Sunday and Monday norm. This week, it will be the Patriots' turn as they take on the Jets on Thanksgiving evening at 8:20 p.m. ET. Adjusting to a short week of preparation is undoubtedly a challenge for any NFL team. The Patriots had the advantage of being at home in Week 11 against the Colts, while the Jets were in St. Louis, having to cut a small portion of preparation time in order to travel back to New York. Bill Belichick has been one of the best in the NFL at getting his team ready to play, so I'd expect the short week to favor the Patriots in this game.
How will the Patriots' offense change in the absence of Rob Gronkowski?
Now, we can sit here and debate the merits of having your superstars play an unnecessary role on special teams until Christmas comes, but that's not going to get us anywhere. Without the best tight end in football, the Patriots' offense is probably going to look a whole lot different this Thursday. "Gronk" is undoubtedly the team's best option in the passing game and their biggest threat in the red-zone. I'd expect to see a heavy dose of Stevan Ridley this Thursday as the Patriots will likely turn to the run game to control the clock and pound the football against a Jets' defense that hasn't been able to stop opposing tailbacks all season. Newcomer Visanthe Shiancoe may see his largest workload to date as a member of the Patriots in place of Gronkowski and a returning, but not quite 100 percent, Aaron Hernandez.
Can the Patriots' defense hold Mark Sanchez under 300 passing yards?
To a casual fan of the NFL, the answer to this question may seem fairly obvious. After all, Mark Sanchez is typically a 50 percent passer who struggles to sense pressure in the pocket and often commits at least a couple of turnovers every game. However, back in Week 7, Sanchez completed 28 of his 41 pass attempts for a total of 328 yards against the New England defense. The Patriots' secondary has been about as awful as it gets for most of this season, and Sanchez's Week 7 performance was simply par for the course. However, newly-acquired cornerback Aqib Talib stepped in last week against the Colts and made an immediate impact, returning an interception for a touchdown and nearly neutralizing superstar wide out Reggie Wayne. Talib's presence should help the Pats again on Thursday, but they'll need better showings from other members of the secondary if they hope to keep Sanchez from duplicating his Week 7 numbers.
Can the Jets establish a running game?
Back in the Week 7 match-up, Jets' tailback Shonn Greene ran for 58 yards on 16 carries, failing to provide New York with a consistent running attack. The Patriots run defense has been perhaps its best asset this season, other than quarterback Tom Brady. After struggling to contain C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson against Buffalo in Week 10, New England's front-seven looked strong against the Colts on Sunday. If they're able to suffocate Greene and shutdown New York's ground game, the Patriots will have a much easier go of it on Thursday night at MetLife Stadium.
This game could decide the division race
With the Patriots sitting at 7-3 and the Jets at 4-6, this football game could very well end the race in the AFC East division. The Buffalo Bills are Miami Dolphins are both 4-6, also, but neither seems to have shown any indications of improvement over the past couple of weeks. If the Patriots are to win this game and improve their record to 8-3, they'd have a four game advantage and the head-to-head tiebreaker over New York with just five weeks left in the season. Even if the Jets are to win on Thursday evening, they'd still face an uphill climb towards to the division crown.
Prediction: Despite the disparity in these two teams' records, I'd expect to see yet another hard-fought divisional battle. So sit back, enjoy the holiday dinner and take in some great football action. My pick? Patriots over the Jets, 27-13.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving everyone!
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