Welcome to Season 12, Episode 3 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup . . .
The Patriots have not lost to the Jets since Dec. 27, 2015, a 26-20 overtime defeat in which Ryan Fitzpatrick threw three touchdown passes and Tom Brady threw just one.
The Patriots have played the Jets 14 times since. They have beaten them all 14 times.
It’s close to imperative that they make it 15 straight Sunday.
Concerns entering the season that the Patriots’ brutal schedule would interfere with their best-laid plans have proved relevant — and some of those plans have come into question.
The Patriots lost their opener, 25-20, to the defending NFC champion Eagles, a respectable showing if ultimately a disappointment considering the Patriots faltered in multiple chances to take the lead or win the game.
Any encouraging vibes that lingered from the loss to the Eagles evaporated in last Sunday’s 24-17 loss to the Dolphins, during which the Patriots’ opponent once again seized an early double-digit lead and grueling uphill attempts to come back were left unfulfilled.
And so the Patriots are 0-2 — not entirely a shock, but a frustrating way to start after a relatively encouraging training camp. Yet the negativity and doubt, particularly from the recent generation of fans who entered their 30s knowing nothing but Patriots success, have been amplified this week beyond belief.
Bill Belichick has 329 career wins as a head coach in the NFL, 18 behind all-time leader Don Shula. Listening to the sports-radio and social-media static about Belichick this past week, you’d think he had the same career record as David Shula (19-52).
In order to quiet the noise, persuade doubters and only-happy-when-I’m-miserable types to stop hitting the panic button like some deranged game of Whac-A-Mole, and, oh yeah, actually put a 1 in the win column three weeks into the season, the Patriots must be at their best Sunday.
They have a genuine chance to be. Coach Robert Saleh’s Jets have enviable high-end talent, including cornerback Sauce Gardner, receiver Garrett Wilson, and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams.
They also featured, fleetingly, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time in Aaron Rodgers . . . for four plays, anyway. In just about the most Jets thing ever, all of the offseason hype about the four-time MVP coming from Green Bay to New York to be the oddball version of Joe Namath ended minutes after it officially began when he suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury on the first series.
That meant that Zach Wilson — the former No. 2 overall pick who has a big arm, good mobility, and not a single other attribute required of a competent NFL quarterback — returned to the role that he flopped in last season.
In four career games against the Patriots, Wilson has completed 54 of 106 passes — or about 50 more than he should have been allowed to attempt — for two touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The Patriots will never acknowledge it, but they could not be happier to see him Sunday, in a game they should and must win.
Kick it off, Ryland, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
Cole Strange: This is not intended to suggest that the surprising 2022 first-round pick is a bust, nor is it to suggest he is the singular solution for what ails the Patriots’ offensive line. He’s merely emblematic of the problem, one that with health and repetition should be — has to be — repairable soon.
That problem: The line has no cohesion, and as frustrating as it is, because it’s negatively affecting everything on offense, it’s understandable.
In the opener against the Eagles, rookies Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi started at guard because Strange (who injured his knee in the first practice of training camp) and Mike Onwenu (who missed camp recovering from ankle surgery) weren’t ready to go. They returned and started against the Dolphins, but left tackle Trent Brown was sidelined with a concussion, meaning 60 percent of the line changed from Week 1 to 2.
The five linemen — which included tackles Vederian Lowe, acquired from the Vikings on Aug. 28, and Calvin Anderson, who dealt with an undisclosed illness in camp that had him pondering retirement, and steady center David Andrews — looked like they hadn’t played together, because they hadn’t. Strange, the left guard, wasn’t as egregiously bad as Anderson was at right tackle, but he was guilty of missing blocking assignments. Along with Brown, Onwenu, and Sow, Strange popped up on the injury report again this past week, suggesting that there should be some concern about a lack of continuity once again Sunday.
Whichever five linemen do start must look more connected than they did a week ago, in both the running and passing games. Rhamondre Stevenson has just 75 yards rushing this season, a pace of 638. He’s the Patriots’ best offensive player, and it’s unfair to keep asking him to make something out of nothing.
And while Mac Jones has mostly done an effective job of getting rid of the ball quickly, the Jets — led by Williams — have a history of making his life difficult. The Jets took Jones down 12 times in the two games last season, with six players collecting a sack in the second matchup.
Garrett Wilson: The 2022 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year came across as a team-focused and likable person on “Hard Knocks,” so he’d probably never acknowledge it, but he has to be one of the Jets most bummed out by Rodgers’s situation. Wilson was poised to become the next Davante Adams. Now Wilson is back to catching passes from a quarterback so inept that he makes Jets fans long for the days of Sam Darnold seeing ghosts. Wilson played a terrific game — with the other Wilson at quarterback — in the Week 8 matchup last year, catching six passes for 115 yards, including a 54-yarder. The Patriots shut him down in the second meeting, a slog of a game that threatened to set back pro football offense by several generations, limiting him to two catches for 12 yards. It should be entertaining to watch Wilson battle Patriots rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez, who came up with a spectacular interception against the Dolphins and drew high praise from star receiver Tyreek Hill, who said Gonzalez was “real good” and a “very lengthy corner, had some real good technique and speed about him.”
Demario Douglas: There’s some hesitation here to expect the Patriots to lean heavily on a rookie sixth-round pick who didn’t see another snap on offense after getting the ball punched loose by the Dolphins’ Bradley Chubb in the first quarter Sunday night. But they should, and here’s hoping Douglas fled chick’s doghouse after a brief stay, because the Patriots are going to need him. Douglas has a skill set — jitterbug quickness and the ability to burst through small windows for long gains — that all other Patriots receivers lack. Kendrick Bourne has made some superb plays and left others on the field. DeVante Parker is never actually open, which makes every throw to him high-risk. JuJu Smith-Schuster has been more helpful than he gets credit for, but his old burst is missing. Douglas, who could offer an element of surprise given that there isn’t much game tape on him, has a chance to have a big day, especially with Jones likely looking for quick-hitters against the fierce Jets rush.
Grievance of the week
You mean besides the suggestion that Belichick should be fired by people who can’t come up with anything interesting to say without being disingenuous and hyperbolic? All right, fine, if we’re just keeping this to football rather than media caterwauling, how about this, the grievance of the season so far:
The Patriots have to stop with the self-defeating mistakes — the Deatrich Wise encroachment on the second play of the season, the Darius Slay pick-6 followed immediately by the Ezekiel Elliott fumble in the Eagles game, the Douglas fumble last week, the drive-killing sacks at the most inopportune times, the big and little mistakes that used to plague their opponents but have become in recent seasons a frustrating part of their own identity.
Matthew Judon is right. The Patriots are not a bad team. But they’re often not going to be as purely talented as their opponents given this brutal schedule. Some excellent teams are going to beat them. If they are going to accomplish anything this season, they have to break this habit of beating themselves.
A recollection of a game, moment, or performance from a previous matchup.
The Patriots and Jets have met 128 times, including three playoff games, so there are plenty of events and vignettes to choose from in their history. (Most of you would go with the Buttfumble here, wouldn’t you? Such a predictable, albeit timeless, choice.) But for these purposes, we’re going to go back to the last meeting, when Marcus Jones’s walkoff 84-yard punt return gave the Patriots a 10-3 victory and provided an electrifying end to a snoozer of a game that featured 17 punts. Jones’s punt return TD was just one of three in the NFL last season — the Lions’ Kalif Raymond and the Browns’ Donovan Peoples-Jones had the others. This season, there has been one — a 65-yard walkoff by Jets rookie Xavier Gipson in overtime in Week 1 against the Bills.
Prediction, or Devin McCourty is retired and he still might pick off Zach Wilson Sunday . . .
The formula is so simple, isn’t it? Don’t dig an early hole like they did against the Eagles (down, 16-0, after the first quarter) and Dolphins (down, 10-0, deep into the second quarter). Play from ahead, which will allow the Patriots to emphasize their strengths, which should include getting Stevenson going on the ground and putting heavy pressure on Wilson. Accept all gifts that Wilson attempts to deliver, because he will throw at least one pass directly to a Patriots defensive back for no apparent reason. Eliminate the undisciplined errors. Fail to do those things, and the season is about to get long after it’s barely even begun. But stick to that reasonable checklist, and the first win of the season will finally be secured. Patriots 20, Jets 10.