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NFL Preview - NY Jets (1-0) at New England (1-0) (ET)
Muhammad Wilkerson, the New York March Madness Bracket 2020 Jets' emerging third-year defensive end, showed more than a bit of swagger by telling Newsday that he believes his team will knock off Tom Brady and the New England Patriots when the AFC East rivals kick off Week 2 of the NFL season at Gillette Stadium on Thursday.
"If our game plan is as good as it was (in the season-opening win against Tampa Bay), I don't see why we won't be 2-0," Wilkerson said. "I'm confident in our coaching staff to have a great game plan and us being 2-0."
The Temple product didn't back down on WFAN Radio when pressed about his Joe Namath-like prognostication: "We're going to go to Foxboro and get this win. We're going to be 2-0."
Bluster isn't going to have much of an effect on Brady or New England coach Bill Belichick but injuries could.
The Pats, of course, are coming off a tumultuous offseason during which Brady lost several key offensive weapons, including tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was released following his stunning June arrest on a murder charge. Meanwhile, security blanket Wes Welker bolted to Denver as a free agent, running back Danny Woodhead picked San Diego as his new home, receiver Brandon Lloyd remains unemployed, and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski remains on the shelf as he continues to recover from offseason forearm and back surgeries.
Despite all that New England persevered in Buffalo last weekend thanks in large part to the gritty play of Welker's replacement, Danny Amendola. The receiver aggravated a groin injury late in the second quarter but returned to play a key role in the Pats' season-opening 23-21 come-from-behind win over the Bills.
Trailing by a point, the New England defense forced a three-and-out against the aggressive play-calling of rookie Bills coach Doug Marrone. Instead of relying on the running game to eat up more of the clock, Buffalo opted to pass and rookie EJ Manuel, the first quarterback chosen in April's draft at No. 16, picked up only four yards on 3rd-and-10.
"It wasn't a situation we felt we needed to milk the clock," Marrone said. "We felt that we still needed to score to win the game."
The Patriots got the ball back with 4:31 to play in the fourth quarter, and Brady went to work, twice hooking up with Amendola to convert third downs, the latter a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-8 from the Buffalo 39.
Shane Vereen followed with a 15-yard run around left tackle on the next play, setting up Stephen Gostkowski's game-winning 35-yard field goal with five seconds left.
"I was proud of our team today. They made the plays they needed to make at the end to win," said Belichick.
Brady finished with 288 yards, two touchdown passes to Julian Edelman and one interception while completing 29-of-52 throws.
Vereen totaled 101 yards on 14 carries and added 58 yards on seven receptions for the Patriots, who have won 10 consecutive season openers, the longest current streak in the NFL. Amendola made 10 grabs for 104 yards.
However, Vereen broke a small bone in his wrist on his first play of Sunday's game and was placed on the injured reserve/designated for return list earlier this week, which means at least an eight-week absence for the running back.
Amendola, meanwhile, wasn't able to practice much during the short week due to his groin and is unlikely to play on Thursday.
As for the Jets, Rex Ryan isn't dead yet thanks to play of people like Wilkerson and rookie QB Geno Smith.
The presumptive lame duck coach has New York at "1-and-Geno" thanks to a little help from Tampa Bay's Lavonte David.
Smith played well in his NFL debut last week, changing the outcome of a seemingly decided game when it seemed most improbable. At the conclusion of a 10-yard scramble with seven seconds remaining, the former West Virginia star drew a personal foul penalty from David which set up Nick Folk for a game- winning 48-yard field goal, lifting Gang Green to a thrilling 18-17 win over the Buccaneers.
The Jets defense, which was solid for most of the day, made a critical mistake moments earlier when it left Vincent Jackson uncovered on the prior possession. The receiver's 37-yard catch allowed Rian Lindell to kick a go- ahead 37-yard field goal with just 34 seconds left.
With time winding down, Smith first fired a 25-yard pass to Kellen Winslow and spiked the ball to stop the clock before the fateful play that set New York's winning score.
"I stay focused on the game, whatever the situation is," said Smith. "You've got to think positive and try and figure out a way to pull it out."
Smith ended 24-of-38 for 256 yards through the air, tossing a touchdown and an interception in his NFL debut. He also led the Jets rushing attack with 47 yards on six carries.
"I thought Geno did a really nice job for a lot of it. I'll tell you where he really helped us, he ran," said Ryan. "He made some big plays running."
The Patriots and Jets will be meeting for the 109th time Thursday -- including three postseason matchups -- since the series between the AFC East rivals began in 1960.
Last season, the Patriots swept the series for the fifth time in team history and for the second straight season after a 29-26 overtime win at Gillette Stadium on Oct. 21 and a 49-19 win at MetLife Stadium on Thanksgiving night.
The 2012 victories put the Patriots in front in the series, 55-52-1 overall. New England is 29-25-1 all-time in home games against the Jets, including 25-19 overall in Foxborough and 9-4 at Gillette Stadium.
The Pats, though, have spiked in the series (26-14) since Robert Kraft purchased the franchise in 1994.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Smith faces a much tougher task this week when he makes his first road start against the Patriots. The former West Virginia star may make his share of rookie mistakes but offers the run-pass, dual option that is en vogue in today's NFL.
And forget all the criticism regarding Smith's work ethic. He has taken to the film room and already understands what he is up against, showing off an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Pats' defense and reeling off a bit of a scouting report.
"They obviously present mismatches for anybody, so it's going to be tough for us," Smith said. "We just have to continue to stay smart. They are, a very well coached defense.
"Up front they are very strong. They have (Rob) Ninkovich, who is one of the smartest players I have seen on tape. He constantly makes plays; he is always around the ball. Vince Wilfork, I mean his name speaks for itself and he can be a guy who can change the game at any moment. They have Chandler (Jones) who is one of the up-and-coming defensive ends/outside linebackers in the league. He presents mismatches for tackles and he is constantly around the ball making plays, constantly getting to the quarterback.
"The linebackers, led by (Jerod) Mayo, and they have (Brandon) Spikes; (Dont'a) Hightower from Alabama. All of those guys, they run well, they hit, they come downhill hard and they can stop an offense.
"Their back end I think is pretty strong. They have Alfonzo Dennard, they have Aqib Talib, who they got last year. Then you move in (Devin) McCourty the safety and they picked up (Steve) Gregory from the Chargers, so all of those guys are veterans. They know the game, they've been around for a while now and I think they play well together."
Belichick is already impressed.
"I thought he played very well against Tampa last week," the coach said when asked about Smith. "He ran well, he threw well, he made good decisions, moved the team at critical points in the game. That's the most important thing -- he made the plays he needed to make to win."
Injuries are the big story in New England this week as Vereen and probably Amendola won't be available in the short week.
"We'll see how that all sorts itself out," Brady said. "There's a lot to prepare for in a very short amount of time. We're cramming a lot in but that's what we have to do."
Amendola was the hero last week and the combination routes he ran with Edelman are now off the table because the Pats' young receivers like Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson are just not up to speed at this point.
Stevan Ridley, meanwhile, was supposed to be the guy at running back but he is coming off a two-fumble game at Buffalo. He's the first option with Vereen sidelined but will have a short leash and LeGarrette Blount, a former 1,000- yard rusher in Tampa, as well as former Jet Leon Washington could be in play for New England.
"That's why you have a deep roster," Brady said. "We have a lot of good running backs, a lot of good receivers."
The Jets front seven is better than people think with Wilkerson on the verge of developing into one of the better lineman in all of football. The back end is a little shakier and rookie corner Dee Milliner struggled a bit against Tampa Bay and Jackson but he and veteran Antonio Cromartie have the physical skills to make things tough on a Pats receiving corps minus Amendola.
Look for Edelman, who had seven receptions for 79 yards and two TDs against the Bills, to be Brady's go-to-guy on Thursday.
You have to think the short week favors the home team with the veteran quarterback over the visitors and the rookie but Belichick is wary.
"I think this is a big challenge for us this week with the limited amount of preparation time and the amount of things the Jets do," the coach said. "They have a real good scheme."
That good scheme and the fact that Brady is going to run out of offensive options soon will make this one closer than people think. That said, expect Ridley to return to form this week at home and "Tom Terrific," who owns a 17-4 record against the Jets as a starting quarterback, will likely cobble out enough plays with his undermanned receiving unit to send Smith packing in his first try away from North Jersey.
"We're just going to have to have a quick turnaround here and get in-tune with what the Jets do," Belichick said.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 21, Jets 17
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