Behind enemy lines with Jets analyst Will Parkinson
Twenty-two years ago Saturday, the fortunes of the New England Patriots, and by proxy every other team in the NFL, especially those in the AFC East, changed forever. New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis hit Pats quarterback Drew Bledsoe along the sidelines, causing a serious injury in the franchise QB’s lungs, forcing backup second-year quarterback Tom Brady into the game. And though the Jets won that game, they did a lot of losing for the decades to come, while the Patriots…you know the story.
Cut to 22 years later: the two teams are in transition yet again, with their seasons and futures seemingly in the balance based on Sunday’s matchup. That statement feels strong if not a tad hyperbolic, yet ask anyone who plays on, covers or roots for either team and they’ll tell you it’s a must-win game. Each team needs a win, for a number of reasons, and perhaps the Pats, the team with the six Super Bowl trophies this century, need it more than the green-colored symbol of futility and frustration?
FYI: for those who clap back at the idea of a “must-win game” in September, please allow for the dramatic narrative. Nobody is eliminated from the postseason based on the results of Sunday’s 1 p.m. game in North Jersey, but also you should note that since NFL expansion in 1979, only six teams have made it to the postseason since starting 0-3. Han Solo famously said, “Never tell me the odds!” but this situation calls for an awareness that playing anything short of your best football for the Pats is unacceptable, and potentially damning.
Each team can and should be better than their record indicates. Oddly enough, the host for Sunday’s game, the New York Jets who play in New Jersey, had their ducks in a row for a legit playoff push in 2023 with hopes flying high until a few minutes into the opener. A team loaded with young playmakers on both sides of the ball instantly saw their fortunes change when a catastrophic injury to veteran mercenary QB Aaron Rodgers on just his fourth play of the season.
Rodgers’ Achilles tear ushered back in third-year QB Zach Wilson, an enemy of Jets fans and darling of Patriots Nation for his cavalier charity with the ball. Wilson has the Jets off to a 1-1 start when he wasn’t supposed to be playing, and the big question is can the Jets win in spite of their QB? To say he’s been kind of terrible vs. the Pats would be an understatement the size of the Manhattan skyline a few miles from the stadium.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are in their own realm of redevelopment, removed from the day of elite status and dominant play, trying to find footing for their football future, or just a win. Pats fans have mixed feelings about their third-year QB Mac Jones, who looks to be back on the development track but still lacks a signature win in his three-year career.
Bill Belichick’s defense, his hallmark, looks to be on the rise, yet an offensive line in disarray, a lack of elite playmakers and a propensity for self-inflicted wounds has led the Pats to drop their first two games, both at home, both winnable yet…here they are at 0-2.
Following last Sunday’s loss, a 24-17 defeat at home to their division rival Miami Dolphins, reports were the locker room was quiet for the Pats, many players deflated to be two games in the hole, both at home, to start a season where a rebound from a dysfunctional 2022 was expected. Linebacker and unofficial team spokesman Matt Judon made a point of delivering a strongly worded defense of his team after their second loss of the young season, saying, “This is not a bad team.”
Many agree that the Pats seem better than their record, but stop me if you’ve heard this before, in a full-throated Parcells voice: “You are what your record says you are.” And 0-2 is not good. It’s borderline bad for any team, let alone the team with the legacy and reputation of the Pats. And if they were to drop to 0-3? Well, that would be more than bad; that would be just plain terrible and leave the Pats with a lost season just two days into the fall. Yikes!
Some will say there’s talent on this team and hope for their short- and long-term future should the Jets finally end their 14-game losing streak to the Pats Sunday. And with players like running back Rhamondre Stevenson and rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez developing into stars before our eyes, those defending the Pats would have a point.
But also, 0-3 would depress fans and players alike, not to mention cause a deluge of media scrutiny and criticism for coach Bill Belichick. The legendary coach has been under as much fire as praise in recent years. Pick your critical poison for Belichick, whether it’s letting Brady go, his 25-28 record post-Brady, last year’s Matt Patricia Experiment (a band name as bad as his play-calling), or this year’s 0-2 start. Suffice to say, these years look quite different than the double dynastic Belichick & Brady run.
We’re told that noise is ignored in Foxboro, but the din of criticism may be deafening for coach and team alike should the Jets win Sunday.
As much as the Jets want the win to end their futility and frustrations against the Pats, not to mention build confidence with their backup QB in a season where postseason hopes still linger, we are in a world where the Pats need the win, in Week 3 no less, against the Jets more. The Pats need the emotional pickup. They need the confidence boost. They need the win, and to remember what it feels like. They need a strong four-quarter defensive performance against a QB they've owned. They need a mistake-free competent offensive showcase in a hostile environment against a ferocious defensive line.
They need to show others, but most importantly themselves, that they can more than compete, that they can win. Otherwise who knows where this season goes, except next week to Dallas, and possibly back to the drawing board shortly after it began. One place we can be almost certain this season won’t go if the Pats lose Sunday? The playoffs.
And there’s no Mo Lewis to incite a monumental change nor a Tom Brady waiting to author historical greatness in the wings. Just a football team that must win on their own.