DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Sports Writer
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Division title? Check. A first-round bye? The New England Patriots have that, too.
Next up for Tom Brady and Co. is a chance at the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
And, they could clinch it against the rival New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
“It’s a good football team that’s playing well,” Bill Belichick said of the Jets. “We’ll be going into a hostile environment down there, so it will be a big challenge for us this week to be ready to go.”
The Patriots (12-2) won their seventh straight AFC East crown and clinched a bye in the opening round of the playoffs for an NFL-record sixth season in a row. With a win over the Jets (9-5), the Patriots would earn home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs for the second consecutive year.
New England would also put a serious crimp in New York’s postseason plans. The Jets are on a four-game winning streak, but would currently lose out to both Kansas City and Pittsburgh, each also 9-5, because of tiebreakers.
“We’ve probably been in playoff mode in the last four weeks,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said.
New York led New England in the fourth quarter the last time the teams played in October, but Brady led the Patriots to a 30-23 victory. The Jets dropped three of their next four, but have turned things around since.
“They went through a little bit of a down period there in the middle of the season, but they’ve really bounced back from that, won their last four games,” Belichick said. “They really do everything well as a team.”
New York safety Calvin Pryor also sees a much-improved Jets team from the one that came up short against the Patriots earlier this season.
“We’re playing at a very high level, with a purpose,” Pryor said. “When we played them last time, we felt like we could play with them, but we didn’t feel like we could dominate and win that game. I think this is a different mindset now that we have.”
Here are some other things to know when the Patriots and Jets square off Sunday:
BEATING BRADY: The Patriots quarterback is 22-6 against the Jets, including 1-1 in playoffs, as a starter, with 42 TDs, 13 interceptions and 6,894 yards. With Brady under center, New England has won nine of the last 10 regular-season meetings with New York and nine of 11 overall. He has 4,405 yards passing through 14 games and needs to average 297.5 yards in the final two games to reach 5,000 yards for the second time in career.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Bowles said. “I’m not the first or the last guy to sit here and compliment him and give him accolades all over the place. He doesn’t need me to say it. He’s got them on his own.”
FITZ MAGIC: A big reason for the Jets’ improvement since the last meeting has been the play of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
He has 26 touchdown passes, three shy of Vinny Testaverde’s team record set in 1998 — not bad for a guy who was expected to be the Jets’ backup. During New York’s four-game winning streak, Fitzpatrick has completed 64.8 percent of his passes for 1,229 yards with 10 TDs, one interception and a 105.7 passer rating.
“He’s playing really well, no question about it,” Belichick said. “Spreading the ball around, making plays. He’s had some great scramble plays, converted third downs, things like that.”
GRONK CATCHING UP: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was a problem for the Jets in the first meeting, catching a season-high 11 passes for 108 yards and a TD.
Gronkowski is on the verge of setting some franchise marks. He has 65 TD catches, two behind Stanley Morgan for the team record. His 66 total TDs (65 catches, 1 run), put him two behind Morgan (67 catches, 1 return) for the most total scores in Patriots history.
DYNAMIC DUO: Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker have combined for 165 catches, 2,191 yards receiving and 21 TDs this season — the most scores by a receiver tandem in Jets history.
They rank first among NFL receiver duos in receptions, second in yards and tied for first in TDs.
“I think they’re one of the best pairs in the NFL,” Patriots corner Malcom Butler said. “They’re both big. They can both run, big catch radius, run after the catch. So you’ve just got to do a good job out there covering those guys.”
JACKSON BACK IN ACTION: With New England down a few running backs after injuries to Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount, the Patriots signed RB Steven Jackson, who hasn’t played this season.
The 32-year-old Jackson played the last two seasons with Atlanta, but was working out in Las Vegas when New England called to ask him to help its backfield.
“I couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift,” Jackson said.
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