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Jets need Sanchez, defense to rise to the occasion

This story never gets old.

The Patriots are the most successful team of the 21st century, with three Super Bowl championships. But with the way Jets coach Rex Ryan talks, you'd think it was his with all the rings.

The media loves the storylines, the quotes, and the sports hatred that exists between New York and Boston, no matter what sport it is. And that only adds to my love of the X's and O's when these two teams meet. The Jets just beat Peyton Manning to get to Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game and now have to conquer Tom Brady. But clearly, by his comments this week, none of that seems to bother Ryan. He'd try to convince you -- and even his team -- that he wants it this way.

Meanwhile, the two surgeons in New England, Bill Belichick and Brady, are quietly preparing for this rubber match in their house, where Brady is 27-1 at home since 2007 (including playoffs).

Here are four critical questions surrounding this game:

1. How do the Jets slow down Brady?

The Jets, who possess the fourth-ranked pass defense in the NFL, have been a very heavy blitz team under Ryan's guidance. The season-ending injury to safety Jim Leonhard slowed down the blitz calls against the Colts, and there was a significant number of three-man rush calls against Manning last week, which leads me to believe there will be more coverage calls than anticipated.

Brady was sacked three times in New England's 45-3 win over the Jets last month, but they didn't seem to bother him one bit. All three of those sacks occurred in the first half, but Brady still managed two touchdown passes in leading his team to 24 first-half points. Since Ryan took over the Jets, Brady has thrown 41 passes on third down and been sacked just once. He gets rid of the ball so quickly most times that it's hard to get to him.

The Jets need to put Darrelle Revis on Wes Welker, even if he's in the slot or in motion. Welker has been targeted 123 times this year, with the majority of throws coming on second down. Brady is deep into a horizontal passing attack this year, especially since the early-season departure of Randy Moss. Brady has become next to impossible to intercept, because he is always throwing the ball low and at the belt buckle of his receivers.

The biggest challenge facing the Jets will be how Brady uses his two rookie tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is a matchup problem for linebackers with his speed, and Gronkowski can line up anywhere. Brady has done a masterful job of using these two kids in many ways, and they have been targeted the exact number of times combined (123) as Welker, except they have 16 touchdowns between them.

2. Can the Jets simultaneously stop the Patriots' ground game?

Don't be fooled into thinking the Patriots are a one-dimensional passing team. In fact, on first downs they are 58 percent run, averaging 4.5 yards a carry. BenJarvis Green-Ellis has become the power back they so desperately had hoped for in the now-departed Laurence Maroney. Last time these teams met, Green-Ellis rushed 18 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns.

Brady will audible to the run when he wants to, whether it's with Green-Ellis or Danny Woodhead in the backfield. If Brady sees a steady diet of two high safeties or detects a certain blitz, he will burn it with the run. The Jets are the No. 3 run defense in the NFL, but focusing on Brady makes it tough to stop the run. Look for the Patriots' running backs to get more than 100 yards on the ground. The Jets are 4-3 this year when opponents rush for at least 100 yards.

3. Can Sanchez capitalize against Pats' poor pass defense?

It's simple for Sanchez. He has beaten the Patriots twice in his career and didn't throw a pick in either victory. He has lost to them twice and threw seven interceptions combined in those defeats.

Sanchez has a lot of experience for a second-year quarterback, including a 3-1 postseason record on the road. The Jets will really help Sanchez with an effective first-down run game. The Patriots know the Jets run on 64 percent of first downs, but Sanchez has been an effective first-down passer, completing 61 percent of his throws at 7.3 yards an attempt. Whether it is Shonn Greene or LaDainian Tomlinson in the backfield, the play-action pass is one of the best weapons the Jets have in their arsenal.

4. Can the Jets' ground game meet expectations?

Last week, Tomlinson demonstrated there is still plenty in the tank at 5.1 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns. In his two games as a Jet vs. New England, he has 21 carries for 123 yards. Greene has contributed 28 for 116 this year, so the running game is there to be employed -- if tom Brady doesn't jump out to an early lead and force the Jets to play catch up. New England did score 17 points in the first quarter in the last game, so the Jets' defense has to play smart and keep the scoring down.

This is going to be one heck of a game, which should look nothing like the lopsided game last month. The Patriots are rested, and Brady is playing at an all-time level. I'll take New England in a 24-17 win.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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