They allow 288.5 passing yards per game, which ranks 32nd in the NFL. But as of late the Patriots' secondary has been dangerous and effective. This week, as the 9-2 New York Jets prepare to travel to Foxboro, Mass., to face the 9-2 Patriots in a matchup of division rivals vying for playoff position, New England's secondary will certainly be a focus.
"You live to play in these types of situations and these moments," wide receiver Braylon Edwards said. "Along with that comes the responsibility of staying focused, staying about the game plan, staying about what goes on in between those hashes as opposed to everything that surrounds it."
The Jets bested the Patriots in Week 2 at New Meadowlands Stadium to the tune of 28-14, but coach Bill Belichick's bunch is a vastly different team in Week 13 than they were early in the season. Their top six tacklers are all in their fourth year or less in the NFL and a team that was once viewed as young and inexperienced has begun to make plays, and that pass defense ranking is deceiving.
"I think if you rely solely on numbers you're going to fall into a bad habit," Jets center Nick Mangold said. "Especially if you look at the guy that I have to go against. Vince [Wilfork] is a heck of a force and a pain to deal with for a whole game. I think that you have to look at them on film more than you have to look at the numbers."
One player that has been particularly impressive is rookie cornerback Devin McCourty. Born in Nyack, N.Y., McCourty played his high school ball at St. Joseph in Montvale, N.J., and attended Rutgers University before being drafted two spots ahead of Jets rookie cornerback Kyle Wilson in the first round. His older brother, Jason McCourty, plays for the Titans, and through 11 games the younger brother has made 61 tackles and five interceptions— production he didn't show in Week 2.
"Lately he's been more patient," Edwards said. "He's been stronger at the line of scrimmage and he's shown much more confidence in there and has played a lot better. It shows with his interceptions and the plays that he's made these past weeks. I see a better player than when we played early on and I just have to play my 'A' game."
In that first matchup Edwards had five receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown plus a two-point conversion. During that game he was mostly lined up against second-year corner Darius Butler. Now with wide receiver Santonio Holmes in the mix, the Patriots defense, which struggled to stop tight end Dustin Keller (7-115-1 TD) in Week 2, will have one more weapon to deal with. Holmes has proven his ability against inexperienced cornerbacks, but still respects the opposing head coach's defensive scheme.
"It's Coach Belichick's defense," Holmes said. "There's nothing else to it. Regardless of who is on the field, what guys are playing, it's his defense that he's been running for a number of years and he's going to continue doing the same thing. His record speaks for itself."
While they've allowed 30 points to the Bills and 34 to the Browns, the Patriots defense has been stouter of late. They intercepted Colts quarterback Peyton Manning three times in Week 11 and then held the high-scoring Lions' offense to seven second-half points in Week 12. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez knows to be wary of the perennially powerful Patriots.
"They've done a good job with making adjustments on the run," Sanchez said. "I think McCourty has turned out to be a pretty good player. They do what they do well, which is disrupt the passing game, make it tough on the running game. They play well on the back end. Their DBs do a great job of keeping things in front of them. [Safety Brandon] Meriweather has done awesome all year just like he did all of last year. It's a great team once again and we need to play well."
The key for the Jets this week will be as much about mindset as it is about X's and O's. This is one of the most hyped regular-season clashes in years, and it will be up to the Green & White's older wide receivers, Edwards, Holmes and Jerricho Cotchery, to use their composure and confidence to their advantage against New England's younger secondary.
"No matter how talented they are, you'll have a bit of an edge," Edwards said. "Now if you use that edge is a different story. If you get caught in a back-and-forth with a young guy, you turn into that young guy, too, and you can't tell who is the veteran and who has been playing longer. The key for us is to stay on top of being that veteran."