Even over the relatively short span of just six weeks of football, the Jets (1-4) have been a tale of two very different teams over the course of the first month-plus of 2019.
One team is the abysmal squad the Patriots beat 30-14 less than a month ago at Gillette Stadium. That group lacked a quarterback – now-released passer Luke Falk made his first NFL start in New England – and as such was outscored a combined 84-23 in three losses from Week 2-Week 5.
The other Jets team is the one that’s led by Sam Darnold, a feisty group that fell just short (17-16) of beating the Bills on opening day and is coming off an impressive upset of the Cowboys (24-22) last Sunday.
Two weeks with Darnold, last year’s first-round pick, have had the Jets competitive with a pair of playoff-caliber teams. Two weeks without him and New York was overwhelmed by the Browns, Patriots and Eagles.
That’s not a coincidence according to Bill Belichick.
“The quarterback makes a big difference,” Belichick said as he broke down the challenges of preparing for Darnold’s Jets this week. “He’s a good quarterback. We saw him at the end of the year last year. He played in the Buffalo game. But, he can make all the throws. Big, strong kid. He can run. Short, intermediate, deep.”
The New England boss also has plenty of respect for the man who pulls the Darnold-led offense together in New York, head coach Adam Gase.
“Adam’s one of, as I I’ve talked about, I think one of the best game planners in the game and does an excellent job of attacking defenses and just making it tough to handle what they do offensively, with their different personnel groups and plays and his play calling,” Belichick declared, saying Gase is simply good at everything that goes into the job of running an offense. “Game planning, play calling, strategy, use of personnel, use of plays. I mean, all the things that go into it. It’s not one thing.
“He attacks each defense based on the personnel matchups that he can create differently from week-to-week. I mean, he’ll tell you that, and he said it after the Dallas game. It’s obvious.”
Now Gase will be looking to find a way to move the ball against a Patriots defense that’s playing as well as any in the game. He also must prepare his team for a New England group that’s had the long layoff after playing on Thursday night, plenty of time to regroup, recuperate and prepare for this division battle.
“A lot to get ready for, and Monday night’s always a high-energy game. So, we’ll point to that, and we’ll just be tough down there in New York. So, we’ll need to have a good week here, be ready to go,” Belichick concluded.
As the long week off continues through the weekend on the way to Monday Night Football, here are some of the key areas to keep an eye on as the Patriots look to remain unbeaten against their longtime rivals from just down I-95.
Turnover the same leaf – The Patriots are plus-9 in turnover differential through six games, thanks in large part to the defense’s NFL-best 16 takeaways. Giving the Tom Brady-led offenses extra possessions, short fields and even some defensive scores off turnovers has been a huge part of the winning formula for New England that it needs to ride as long as possible. While Darnold has just one interception and no fumbles lost, he’s facing a different beast in a Patriots defense that can force turnovers in so many ways at all three levels. Turnovers are usually directly tied to winning and losing, and that’s certainly been the case so far for the Patriots. Keeping that trend rolling would be a huge first step toward a nice road win in New York.
Health check – Even after an extended break that included four days off, the Patriots have some health concerns. The most notable come at wide receiver where Julian Edelman (chest) and Phillip Dorsett (hamstring) remained limited in practice while Josh Gordon (knee) did not practice on Thursday. Edelman has been gutting out 100-yard performances and Dorsett’s injury was reported as “minor” despite missing the Giants game. Gordon is the real question. He walked through the locker room with a minor limp after what originally looked like a somewhat gruesome injury against New York. If he can’t go, which is a real possibility, the passing game may have to continue to plod along minus a key piece against the Jets. Matt LaCosse (knee) looks like he could miss game time after missing practice, while Rex Burkhead continues to be limited with a foot issue and Patrick Chung with heel and chest issues. New York was even worse off based on the early injury reports, the Jets listing 10 players as missing practice on Thursday with another five listed as limited. On a positive note for New York linebacker C.J. Mosley said he plans on returning from a groin injury, which would be a boost for the Jets front seven. Either way, the final injury report and Monday night’s pregame inactives will clearly have an impact on this matchup.
Avoid allowing big plays – Normally this is an area of focus for the defense, but after giving up a strip-sack for a touchdown against the Giants it’s a warning for the New England offense as well. New York has three return touchdowns on the season, including a pair of interceptions. So Brady and Co. need to take care of the ball and not give New York chances to score on defense. Robbie Anderson is a big-play threat for the Jets who did damage to the tune of a 92-yard touchdown against the Cowboys. The way the Patriots defense is playing right now, including holding five straight opponents to a mere pair of third down conversions or fewer (New York had zero when the teams met a month ago), it’s hard to imagine any team moving the ball consistently on long drives. The only way to score against New England right now might be what the Giants did with Golden Tate’s fortuitous 64-yard TD pass. Avoid negative big plays on both sides of the ball and the home squad should be in trouble.
Tackle Bell – Le’Veon Bell is in many ways the centerpiece of the Jets offense, even if the overall production is somewhat lackluster. The former Steelers star leads New York with 85 carries for just 256 yards and a 3.0-yard average with one touchdown. His longest run is 13 yards. He’s also tied for the team lead with 28 catches, but again for low yardage (169) and average (6.0) with a single score. Bell is going to get, based on his track record to date, 20-plus combined touches. As long as he doesn’t start hitting chunk plays and the Patriots tackle well – which has been really the only issue at times for the New England defense this season – he shouldn’t be able to ignite the home squad.
Night run – Sony Michel and the Patriots just haven’t been able to get the ground game going to date this season, save for the second half in Washington. There hasn’t been enough room to run and Michel hasn’t been able to create much. The Jets aren’t easy to run on – they’ve allowed opponents just a 3.5-yard average through five games. But given all the questions with Brady’s pass catchers and pass protection, it’s almost a necessity for the Patriots to at least try to run the ball. Sure it’s nice to throw short passes to Julian Edelman and James White, but the offense has to bring more to the table if it’s going to diversify at all and keep those two key veterans from getting too worn down. Whether it’s a mentality or need for improved execution, a team with the kind of defense the Patriots have and the kind of questions the passing game has simply has to start running better. Of course it’s easier written than done.
Prediction – It’s 6-0 vs. 1-4. Should be a cakewalk, right? Not so fast my friends. Not on the road in the division against a Jets team that has things looking up just a bit. Not given the questions regarding the New England passing game. Not for a Brady-led squad that’s seen itself struggle at times each week since the second quarter of the first meeting with the Jets. Make no mistake, the Patriots are the better team with better talent and better coaching. That’s why they’ll win. But there will be times when Jamal Adams and the Jets defense build some momentum. And the Patriots may not get the special teams and defensive touchdowns that Belichick has called bonus points. Run the ball, use the short passing game, play solid defense and leave New York with a 24-10 win. It doesn’t have to be pretty or a blowout, just survive and advance to 7-0.