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Patriots’ improved run defense will be tested by Jets

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The passing game has been the story in New England, both over the last decade and throughout this season.

The Patriots won the AFC East and are fighting to hold on to the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC thanks to the Tom Brady/Rob Gronkowski-led passing attack and the Darrelle Revis-led pass defense.

It’s the way of the world in the NFL these days for most places outside of Seattle: You win in the NFL by throwing the ball.

But when the Patriots (11-3) met the Jets (3-11) in Week 7 at Gillette Stadium, New England found itself in a dogfight down to the wire because the Patriots could do little to stop Chris Ivory and the Jets’ running game. Chris Jones’ blocked field goal allowed Bill Belichick’s team to hold on for the 27-25 victory, but Ivory churned out 107 yards on 21 carries and the Jets piled up 218 yards on the ground to control the clock and put up a season high in points.

It was the nadir of the year for the Patriots’ run defense.

In the seven games since, the Patriots have allowed more than 100 yards just twice, and opponents have been held to 3.6 yards per carry or worse six times.

A run defense that was ranked 25th in the league after being run over by the Jets now ranks No. 10.

That will be challenged yet again by the Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. New York has the No. 2 rushing attack in the league (behind Seattle). Ivory continues to roll. Chris Johnson has come on of late.

New York has topped 150 yards rushing five times in the last eight weeks, including an incredible 277 yards three weeks ago against the Dolphins.

Belichick expects his newly stout defensive front to face a major test Sunday afternoon.

“They have a very extensive and diverse running game,” Belichick said. “This will probably be the most volume of running game schemes and run game issues that they create that we’ve had in quite a while, certainly all year.”

In the last three weeks, New York’s games have decided by six points or less as they have focused on running the ball and playing solid defense.

Taking away the running game will be the key to the Patriots staying out of the kind of close game the Jets created the first time around.

“I think the Jets obviously are doing a great job right now of controlling games. They are trying to put themselves into a tight game every week, where now the game is going down to the last possession or the last couple of possessions where they have a chance to win,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. “I think they are certainly doing a great job at the run game. They are the No. 2 rushing team in the league. So, they’ve certainly done an excellent job there of getting different ways to gain yards.”

It’s that kind of game the Patriots are trying to avoid. The first big step in that direction starts with Vince Wilfork and Dont’a Hightower continuing to play the solid run defense that New England has displayed over the last two months.

New England’s Super Bowl hopes likely rest on the passing game on both sides of the ball. But for this Sunday, at least, the run defense may play the biggest factor in the team’s success against its old-school division rival, which would like nothing better than to close out Rex Ryan’s tenure with an upset that could spoil New England’s run toward the No. 1 seed.

SERIES HISTORY: 109th regular-season meeting. The Patriots lead 55-52-1. New England and New York have been butting heads since the AFL days of 1960, when the Boston Patriots clashed with the New York Titans. Each has had its run of success, as shown by the near-.500 record in the series that includes 111 previous battles, including postseason. One of the recent highlights came in 2010, when the Patriots blew out the Jets 45-3 and then lost to Rex Ryan’s team in Foxborough, 28-21, a few weeks later. The Jets have won just once since that day, an overtime win last October in New York. New England has won six of the last seven, including a 27-25 victory on a blocked field goal as time expired.

NOTES: DL Dominique Easley (knee) was placed on injured reserve Wednesday. The first-round rookie played in 11 games and started two, missing time because of knee and shoulder injuries. … The Patriots replaced Easley with TE Steve Maneri, who spent 2010 on the practice squad as a tackle and has played in 23 games with the Kansas City Chiefs (2011-12) and Chicago Bears (2013). … QB Tom Brady and TE Rob Gronkowski were New England’s top vote-getters in the fan voting for the Pro Bowl. Brady finished third overall and third among QBs behind Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. Gronkowski was the 10th overall vote-getter, first among tight ends. K Stephen Gostkowski led kickers. The selections will be announced Tuesday on NFL Network. … S Devin McCourty is the Patriots’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. The award will be given at the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. McCourty’s twin brother, Jason, is Tennessee’s nominee. … QB Garrett Gilbert, a sixth-round pick by the St. Louis Rams this year, was signed to the practice squad.


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