By Steve Silverman
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Any time your previous head coach was as bombastic and outspoken as Rex Ryan, it’s easy to make comparisons with the current leader and come to definitive conclusions.
But much to his credit, Todd Bowles has never been under the impression that his job was to win the public relations battle with the former head coach by creating headlines. His goal from Day 1 has been to get the Jets to play improved football on an every-day basis.
A 4-1 getaway is an indication that he is doing a good job, but there are major tests during the 16-game schedule. One comes this Sunday when the Jets go to Foxboro to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Ryan used to make this game out to be something of a crusade for the Jets, and that was almost certainly the wrong approach. The way to succeed in the NFL is to prepare as much as possible for each game, and not assign emotional value to some games and not others.
That can change in the postseason when a coach must ask players to “spill their bucket” to survive and advance, but it’s counterproductive in the regular season.
The key for any top-level head coach is figuring out the most significant matchups in any game and maximizing your team’s strengths and minimizing its weaknesses.
The Patriots have been rolling over most of their opponents this season, but the idea that they are unbeatable and have no weaknesses is simply ridiculous. The Pats are just a middle of the pack defensive team as they rank 16th overall, including 22nd against the run.
This plays right into the Jets’ hands because they have one of the league’s best and most underrated offensive weapons in running back Chris Ivory.
Ivory has already run for 460 yards and five touchdowns, and he is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Ivory is finishing his runs with a nasty punch and he refuses to go down after first contact. The Pats have a brilliant linebacker in Jamie Collins who leads the team in tackles, and a hard-working defensive line that can slow down the interior run.
This is a battle that Ivory can win, but it will take his best effort to do so. He has played well through the first five games, but it will take a little more here.
The more success the Jets have with the running game, the more dividends it will pay because it will keep Tom Brady and the New England offense off the field.
Brandon Marshall has to come through for the Jets in this game, and while the big receiver has been troubled by a calf injury in practice, he appears to have an advantage over Malcolm Butler.
Last season’s Super Bowl hero has continued to work hard and improve for Bill Belichick. He has become New England’s best cover man, and he has eight passes defensed and an interception to go with 24 tackles. But he is going to get worn down by Marshall, and the matchup should swing the receiver’s way by the second half.
The balance of power in the secondary clearly belongs to the Jets, and the key matchup will likely feature Darrelle Revis going up against Julian Edelman. Revis remains the best cover man in the league, and after helping the Pats win the Super Bowl a year ago, he has been on top of his game (three interceptions, six passes defensed) for the Jets this season.
Edelman has 40 receptions, 449 yards and four touchdowns and his quickness and change-of-direction ability will give Revis a test. But Revis is as much a student of the game and a master of film study as he is a great athlete. He knows Edelman quite well, anyway, and the Jets are expecting Revis to do an excellent job of limiting New England’s top receiver.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has done a fine job of leading the Jets through five weeks, but he will be forced by the Patriots to play his best game to date. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is going to try to set Fitzpatrick up and take the game away from the Jets by creating interceptions.
Fitzpatrick has thrown seven picks this season, and when he was playing for the Buffalo Bills from 2009 through 2012, he threw an average of 16 per season. He had his biggest problems against New England, as he threw 17 in seven games when he was the Bills’ starting quarterback.
Fitzpatrick is smart and gutsy, but he cannot take unnecessary chances because he thinks a big play might be available. He has got to dial it back a notch and let the Jets’ ground control game do its job.
That’s the mental part of the game, and you might think it would be easy for the Harvard-educated Fitzpatrick.
It is not, but if Fitzpatrick can keep his emotions in check and help the Jets maintain possession, they have an excellent chance of walking into Foxboro and handing the Patriots their first loss of the season.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy