Chad Finn | Unconventional preview

Struggles on road illustrate need for Patriots to clinch bye Sunday

Sam Darnold has thrown five touchdowns without an interception in the last two games for the Jets.
Sam Darnold has thrown five touchdowns without an interception in the last two games for the Jets. Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Welcome to Season 7, Episode 16 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

It’s not exactly breaking news to note that the Patriots have had an unusual number of ups and downs by their usual dynastic standards this season. Rob Gronkowski has had some dazzling moments, but they’ve been overshadowed by his recent 1992 Mark Bavaro imitation. Tom Brady has had some dazzling moments, too, but he’s often looked like what a 41-year-old quarterback is supposed to look like lately, possibly — I’d bet probably — due to a knee injury. Josh Gordon has come and gone, Kenyan Drake earned a permanent spot in the NFL Films’ fantastic finishes library, and while the Patriots did win seven of eight in one stretch, they also have twice lost two in a row.


And yet here they are, headed into the regular-season finale against the Jets right about where they usually are this time of year: on the verge of locking up a first-round bye . . . and with a little luck, perhaps even the top seed overall.

For all of the assorted imperfections this season, a victory Sunday would give the Patriots a little bit of perfection. They would wrap up the home schedule at 8-0, a feat that would confirm two intertwined thoughts: They are going to be awfully tough to beat on their own turf, and perhaps not so tough to take down on the road. So locking down that first-round bye is imperative. It shouldn’t be too difficult against the 4-11 Jets, who have lost 8 of 9. But then, not much has been especially easy this year.

Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started . . .


Sam Darnold: It wouldn’t shock me if the rookie, chosen with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, ended up being at least the second-best quarterback in Jets history, and perhaps even the best. Yeah, I know it’s really early to even ponder such a thing — after all, the 21-year-old former Southern Cal star has played just 12 professional games, completing 57.8 percent of his passes for 2,698 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. But he’s had some bright moments lately, throwing for 594 yards over the past two games, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. And the larger point ought to be obvious: The Jets have never had a great quarterback other than Joe Namath, and his style exaggerated his substance: He threw more interceptions (215) than touchdowns (170) as a Jet. What I’m saying is that a dozen games into his career, Darnold at least looks like he might be better than Ken O’Brien, Richard Todd, and Chad Pennington.


Elijah McGuire: I can’t tell if this is progress or just the result of the Bills having to throw after falling behind, 14-0, in the second quarter, but the Patriots’ run defense did hold them to just 72 yards and three first downs on the ground last Sunday. It’s certainly better than what they did the previous two weeks, when the likes of Frank Gore, Brandon Bolden, and Jaylen Samuels trampled the Patriots in the successive losses to the Dolphins and Steelers. (The Patriots run defense also wasn’t great against the Vikings before those two losses, but Minnesota for some reason stopped giving the ball to Dalvin Cook. That decision might be why offensive coordinator John DeFilippo lost his job.) McGuire hasn’t exactly become Curtis Martin The Sequel since taking over the Jets’ starting running back job — he’s averaging just 3.2 yards per carry this season — but he does have a touchdown in each of the last three weeks. The Jets would be wise to discover whether he can do any damage against that Patriots run defense.


Rob Gronkowski: I know I’ve said this before a couple of times this season, but I can’t resist reiterating it: I can’t believe we’re already talking about the end with Gronk, even if he says unconvincingly that he’s not thinking about next year yet. He’s only sporadically excelled this year, almost certainly due more to current injuries than any major erosion of skills, but it wasn’t that long ago that he was one of the NFL’s premier forces of nature. In the Super Bowl against the Eagles he had nine catches (on 15 targets) for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns. In Weeks 11 and 12 last year against the Bills and Steelers, he totaled 18 catches for 315 yards on 24 targets. He’s as fun as any player the Patriots have ever had, and I hope we get to see a couple more bursts of dominance before he tells us what the future holds.


I remember Ben Watson’s six-season tenure with the Patriots (2004-2009) as productive but occasionally exasperating, especially for a physical marvel who was taken with a first-round pick. He was good, but never as reliable or dynamic as you hoped. So it’s to his credit that he lasted 14 seasons in the NFL (he missed the entire ’16 season due to an Achilles’ injury) and remained productive until departing on his own terms. Watson announced Thursday that he would retire at season’s end, and he will walk away not just as one of the top 15 tight ends in NFL history in regular-season receptions (528), but more important, with a reputation as one of the classiest and brightest players in the league.


Watson’s career is far from a grievance. But his most memorable play remains one for Patriots fans, and we saw it a whole bunch Thursday when he announced his farewell.

You know what I’m talking about. The Patriots-Broncos divisional round playoff game in January 2006, and his full-speed, opposite-side sprint to catch and crush Champ Bailey near the Patriots goal line. The Broncos corner had picked off Tom Brady in the Denver end zone and was attempting to return it 101 yards for a touchdown. Bailey appeared to fumble the ball out of the end zone, which should have been a touchback and the Patriots ball, but the officials awarded the Broncos the ball near the goal line. Denver scored on the next play, Watson’s hustle was for naught, and the game would be the first playoff loss of the Belichick/Brady era after three Super Bowl victories.



The Jets, at least by their usual standards, have reason for hope for the future, largely due to Darnold. But the future is not Sunday. The Jets are beaten up — defensive back Mo Claiborne, wide receivers Quincy Enunwa and Jermaine Kearse have all been ruled out — and will go their separate ways after this game. The Patriots beat the Jets in the regular-season finale last year, 26-6. I’d expect more of the same today, though ultimately the Patriots will end up with the No. 2 seed rather than earning the No. 1 like they had last year. And after this? Let the real season begin. Patriots 27, Jets 13.

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.