Pats can avoid pitfall of 2015 with win over struggling Jets
For the second consecutive year, the Patriots enter Week 16 with two chances to wrap up the AFC's top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And for the second straight season, the barriers to that prize could be matchups with the Jets and Dolphins.
New England tripped into the playoffs last season following an overtime loss at New York and 10-point defeat at Miami that saw the Patriots rest several starters and use quarterback Tom Brady sparingly. Without home-field advantage the season, culminated in an AFC championship game loss at Denver and almost immediate second-guessing of their approach over their final two regular-season games.
No one in the Patriots' locker room wants to have those thoughts this time around. They can give themselves an early present in Saturday's Christmas Eve matchup with the Jets (4-10). With a win and a loss or tie by Oakland, the Patriots (12-2) clinch both the top seed and home-field advantage.
"A huge sense of urgency," safety Devin McCourty said. "I mean it's kind of like we were in the same position last year — same opponents the last two weeks of the season, obviously same goals. Last year, whatever we thought of how good of a position we were in ... the season didn't end the way we wanted it to."
New England appears to be in much better shape for its mulligan attempt. The Jets are just trying to stumble to the finish line, having lost five out of their last six.
Despite their issues, coach Todd Bowles said he doesn't think a void of leadership from his veterans is the culprit.
"Obviously, when you're losing it seems like a void, but they've been showing more leadership in losing than they had last year when we won five in a row," he said. "Even though it doesn't show in the win column, there has been a lot of growth there as far as people in the locker room."
Here are some other things to watch for in Saturday's matchup:
DEFENSIVE EMERGENCE: As well as the Patriots' offense has played, the defense may also be playing its best football of the season.
New England has the AFC's sixth-ranked defense (yielding 248.1 yards per game) and has suddenly become very good at forcing turnovers, with 17.
McCourty had a fumble recovery and interception against Baltimore on Dec. 12. He was also one of two Patriots defensive players named to the Pro Bowl. McCourty, a third-time selection, was joined by fellow captain and first-time selection Dont'a Hightower.
PETTY READY: Jets quarterback Bryce Petty will make his fourth NFL start after his status was uncertain earlier in the week after suffering a bruised chest against Miami last Saturday night.
Petty was forced out of the game after being sandwiched by Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh while completing a pass in the fourth quarter. X-rays and a CT scan were negative, and the second-year quarterback practiced fully during the week.
Petty, trying to prove to the Jets that he can be their starter next season, is 75 of 130 for 809 yards with three touchdowns and six interceptions this season, and has been sacked 11 times. The next test: the Patriots at New England.
"It's a great challenge," Petty said. "It's one that I don't want to be anywhere else. It's exactly where I want to be, to play against a guy that I've grown up watching."
BOOM-BOOM-POWELL: With Matt Forte dealing with a torn meniscus in his right knee and a sore shoulder, Bilal Powell has stepped in as the Jets' workhorse in the backfield.
Powell had a career-high 179 yards from scrimmage against San Francisco on Dec. 11, and followed that up with 164 total yards against Miami last Saturday night. He had a career-best 11 catches for 80 yards against the Dolphins, the first time a Jets running back had 10 or more receptions since Bruce Harper in 1983.
Forte is considered a game-time decision.
NOT-SO-SPECIAL SPECIAL TEAMS: The Jets are struggling on special teams under first-year coordinator Brant Boyer, ranking last in the NFL by the statistics analysis site FootballOutsiders.com.
Rookie Lachlan Edwards ranks 30th in the league among punters with at least 30 punts with a 42.8-yard average. His 37.1 net average ranks him 33rd.
Jalin Marshall, Nick Marshall, Jeremy Ross and C.J. Spiller have all taken turns for a kickoff return unit that ranks 15th in the NFL with a 22.4-yard average. New York is tied with Jacksonville for last with 5.9 yards per punt return.
AP Sports Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. in Florham Park, New Jersey, contributed to this report.
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