Thursday Night Football Preview: Same Old Song and Dance
Listen, I've got to be frank with you. I seriously considered submitting a version of this article that was shorter than the amount of words I've already written here. I mean, what's the point? What could possibly be the purpose of belaboring the one point I'll ultimately make? Why would I spend 800 words detailing all the ways in which the New York Jets, pariahs of the moment, quarterback controversy personified, a team on the verge of another lost season, will get shellacked by the Patriots tonight?
Well, because JJ, our Editor-In-Chief, would probably be pretty unhappy with me, for starters. But also because...well, because football.
It's a cliché at this point to say what a cliché it is to invoke the grand equalizer of Any Given Sunday, but really, it's fascinating the degree to which parity has made the NFL the Wild Wild West of sports. Anecdotally, we've seen at least two or three legitimately surprising upsets each week this year. (If I told you before the season started that the Cowboys would handily trounce the defending champion Seahawks last week in Seattle, how many spit takes in a row would you have done?) The National Football League is a place where the Steelers can edge out the Browns in Week 1 and then get utterly posterized by them five weeks later. And consider this: if the Browns and Steelers had, let's say eight more games to play against each other, would you feel totally comfortable saying which team would win more games? I wouldn't.
And that's why I'm about to spell out exactly how the grimly determined Bill Belichick, the increasingly frustrated Tom Brady, and the rest of the ragtag Patriots will most likely dismantle the terrible, rudderless Jets, the same way five out of the six favored teams on Thursday night this year have dismantled their hapless opponents - and how the Jets might stand a chance just the same.
G-G-G-Geno and the Jetsss
Much has been made over the last few weeks of just how bad the Jets have been. By numberFire's nERD metric, which expresses how many points a team will win or lose by when facing a statistically average team, New York ranks 28th, with a score of -5.25. (In case you were wondering, the teams that trail the Jets are the Rams, Raiders, Buccaneers, and the impossibly futile Jaguars, whose nERD of -15.62 makes them look like a Division III team who keeps going to the wrong stadium each week.) The only team they've beaten are the woeful Raiders, one of only two remaining winless teams in the league.
The main problem is quarterback Geno Smith, who, despite showing flashes of brilliance in his first two professional seasons, has mostly been a black hole behind center. In fact, he ranks fifth-to-last in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) among all quarterbacks in 2014 with a -13.47 score, with the only other opening-day starters ranking behind him in that category being Chad Henne and Josh McCown.
The response from a vocal contingent of Jets fans has been to replace Smith with his backup, veteran Michael Vick. But that may not be the greatest idea in the world, considering that Vick happens to be one of the other two quarterbacks with a lower Passing NEP than Geno (albeit in limited action). Against a Patriots defense that ranks fifth in the NFL against the pass per our metrics, the Jets don't figure to get much going through the air, regardless of who's throwing the ball.
In fact, you might expect to see a line from Geno Smith (or Michael Vick, if you prefer) somewhat like the one quarterback Scott Mitchell put up for the Bengals back in 2000 against the upstart Tennessee Titans, in one of our strongest predictor games (88.51%). Now, I know you're all intimately familiar with the details of Scott Mitchell's career, but I'll pretend you're not: Mitchell was the former Lions starter who came into the starting gig in Cincy that year in relief of a pitiful rookie campaign by Akili Smith. Against the Titans (who finished 13-3 that year), Mitchell completed just 12 of 26 passes for 131 yards on the way to a 35-3 defeat. As such, don't look for Geno and/or Mike to put up anything resembling gaudy numbers against the Pats.
The Brady Bunch
The storyline for the Patriots this year, meanwhile, has been "What's wrong with Tom Brady?" Or, if you've paying attention, "What's wrong with everybody around Tom Brady?" There's no denying that New England's front office has done a poor job of surrounding Brady with talent beyond Rob Gronkowski; the receiving corps is populated by underperformers like Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Brandon LaFell (last week's monster game notwithstanding), the offensive line is a puddle shaped like five people, and none of the running backs seem like they really care to hold on to a starting job.
For his part, Brady has put up serviceable, if decidedly un-elite, numbers, ranking 15th in Passing NEP with 23.00 (behind guys like Jay Cutler and Alex Smith, but ahead of Ben Roethlisberger and Nick Foles). The Jets have been similarly average against the pass this year, ranking 18th in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. But judging by the way Brady and the Patriots carved up a good Bills defense for 37 points last week, we may be back to looking at a New England offense that's a bit better than average.
Crowded Backfields (a.k.a., I Didn't Have a Clever Subtitle for This Section)
Of course, both the Patriots and the Jets have some real talent at the running back position, a station that gets seriously muddied by Belichick and Rex Ryan's committee approach. Things look even more confusing when you factor in Stevan Ridley's season-ending ACL tear last week, which leaves the Pats with Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, and rookie James White in the backfield.
In Ridley, the Patriots had a middling lead back who had carried the ball fewer than 100 times this year; through six weeks, he'd amassed an unremarkable Rushing NEP of -1.98. Vereen, meanwhile, has been one of the better runners in the league, ranking 23rd in Rushing NEP with 2.97, as well as a dependable (if not electrifying) pass-catcher. Bolden and White, for their part, have a combined 18 carries thus far, so it'll be interesting to see how Belichick and Josh McDaniels involve them in the offense going forward.
New York, on the other hand, has a somewhat less desirable running back situation, one which figures to involve Chris Ivory, Chris Johnson, and Bilal Powell. Johnson has been just putrid in 2014, carrying the ball 51 times on his way to a Rushing NEP of -6.44, which ranks him 18th-to-last among all running backs this year. Bilal Powell is virtually a nonfactor in the Jets' offense at this point, with only 15 total touches through six weeks of play.
It seems obvious to the outside observer that the Jets' best chance at winning is to rely on Chris Ivory, who by our metrics is one of the most efficient runners in the league thus far. He's amassed a Rushing NEP of 4.98, 12th-best in the league, and though his involvement in the passing game has been minimal (8 catches on 14 targets), Ivory's 0.40 NEP per target is 13th among running backs with at least 10 targets, which suggests it might be worth looking his way more often.
So who'll win the rushing battle? Well, survey says the Jets actually have a slight advantage there, mostly because of Ivory's solid production. The Jets rank fourth in the league (according to NEP) in rushing offense, while New England is 18th against the run. We could see something like one of our other strongest predictor games: a 2005 slogfest between the Browns and the heretofore-winless Texans, which Houston won, 19-16. In that game, Houston fed the ball to Domanick Davis a whopping 28 times. And while he only gained 91 yards on those rushes, it was clearly enough to dominate the tempo of the game and keep the other guys off the field, which may be the key to success for the Jets (even if it's a long shot).
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