When the New England Patriots hosted the New York Jets in Week 3, they faced little resistance while improving to 3-0 on the year: the home team jumped to a 20-0 lead midway through the second quarter and never looked back, essentially taking the foot off the gas while cruising to a comparatively easy 30-14 victory. Since then, however, a lot has changed and tonight’s rematch therefore projects to be a more competitive affair.
The biggest name on the list of changes is, of course, quarterback Sam Darnold: the third overall selection of the NFL’s 2018 draft missed the first game against the Patriots because of mononucleosis, but did return to the field last week to promptly guide the Jets to their first victory of the season. Darnold, of course, is a different talent than the since-released Luke Falk who played all 50 snaps when the Jets traveled to Foxborough a month ago.
“Sam’s a very talented player,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a press conference last week. “He’s big, he’s strong, he can make all the throws: short, intermediate, deep. He can extend plays with his legs. He’s also a strong player that’s hard to bring down in the pocket. He can shed tacklers and stay on his feet and throw the ball and still throw it accurately. He’s shown good toughness last year and this year.”
“Going back to the opener against Buffalo, and then [last Sunday] against Dallas, he shows good toughness in the pocket and he’s a quality player. It certainly makes a big difference having him on the field for them. There’s no question about that,” said Belichick about Darnold — a quarterback who celebrated a triumphant return against the Cowboys: he completed 23 of 32 passes for 338 yards, two touchdowns as well as one interception.
Despite the second-year man playing in the same division as Belichick’s team, the Patriots have only one game against Darnold on their résumé: the two sides’ first and only meeting so far took place in Week 17 last season. New England won the contest 38-3, with the quarterback going 16-of-28 for just 167 yards. The then-rookie was also sacked four times and lost a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
While the Patriots defense looked strong against Darnold last year, the unit knows that it cannot treat the challenge at hand lightly. Defensive back Devin McCourty, for example, called Darnold “the guy” when asked about him last week and praised the chemistry he has built with the other offensive players. McCourty and New England’s secondary will try to disrupt this chemistry, but as the veteran pointed out doing that will not be easy.
“When you have that feeling — and then obviously, he’s a really good player — I think it just makes everything flow better,” said McCourty, who had an interception in Week 3, about Darnold. “He looked great last week of just knowing what he wanted to do, getting the ball down the field. So, we’ve just got to be aware it’s going to be different from just that aspect of the first time we played them; they really had their third quarterback in there.”
While Darnold is the biggest change compared to that game in late September, he is not the only one. Linebacker C.J. Mosley and first-round rookie Quinnen Williams, for example, are also expected back after missing the first meeting with New England because of injury. Meanwhile, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas — he is listed as questionable on Saturday’s injury report — could return to Gillette Stadium for the first time since the Patriots traded him to the Jets last month.
Of course, the Patriots have also changed since Week 3. James White, who missed the contest last month due to the birth of his child, will be back into the fold, while fellow running back Rex Burkhead has already been ruled out. Also inactive are Josh Gordon and Ryan Izzo who played 88% and 67% of New England’s offensive snaps, respectively. Defensive end Michael Bennett, who played 38% snaps on defense, will also be absent.
All in all, the two teams have seen some considerable turnover since September 22 — and the club that adapts best to it will come away victoriously tonight.