New England Patriots @ New York Jets
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Darnold can show that inexperience is no barrier to performing in primetime
After an unfortunate bout of mononucleosis, young Sam Darnold returned fighting fit from the school sanatorium to lead his beleaguered New York Jets to a surprise win against the Dallas Cowboys, who have since gone on to frank the form by demolishing the Philly last night. There seemed no fluke to that win, with Darnold posting a very passable QB Rating a wafer shy of 114.
That peak performance against a decent Dallas D featured 338 yards through the air for two touchdowns downs (albeit for the one pick), and there's reason to hope for another assured display on Monday night as the 22-year-old continues to refamiliarize himself with some useful offensive tools at his disposal, including (whether you like him or loathe him) the towering twin-threat talents of Le'Veon Bell, the stud running back now regenerating both his dodgy shoulder and rapacious rep in the greener pastures of the Meadowlands.
One problem: the Jets are coming up against the undefeated New England Pats, who sport Tom Brady on one side of the ball, and the most dominant defense currently in operation on the other. The Pats defense leads the league in turnovers, interceptions and fewest yards allowed per game. Impressive stats on the surface, but I would argue they're perhaps somewhat superficial.
Firstly, at this still early(ish) stage in the regular season, some teams O-lines are only just beginning to gel. Add to that the reality that a tall total of interceptions and turnovers (30 so far) is invariably premised on a combination of disruptive skill and innate luck - sometimes as fundamental as the mere bounce of the oval ball.
All of which leads me to conclude that the Pats' D is not all that. In fact, they've yet to face a rival with a Passer Rating ranking higher than 22nd in the NFL! So, a soft schedule has certainly helped them to an effortless 6-0. Darnold, now in his second full season, is steadily eliminating his rogue rookie moves (for all his precision passing, he was known for holding on to the ball too long and chancing his arm in the pocket last year). In short, Darnold will test the opposition's mettle at MetLife with a crack corps of receivers.
Road warriors could have their weapons blunted
Back on the other side of the roster, and a banged-up Jets defensive line is also returning to ruder collective health, and they definitely gave Dak Prescott kittens last time out, although maybe not the most substantial litter. They limited the Dallas duke to under 300 yards and a lowly 89.3 Passer Rating. Indeed, this doughty D is tenth in the overall standings for permitted Completion Percentage and eighth for Passer Rating.
Even Brady's bunch may not have it their own way, particularly with a boisterous New York crowd bringing the noise for Monday Night showtime. The GOAT doesn't have much of a rushing game to fall back on (and in any case, the Jets run-D is equally solid, restricting Ezekiel Elliott and Co to under 4 yards per carry last week). And Elliott is an elite RB. In which case, Brady may end up taking to the air with a rather one-dimensional battle plan tonight. And that predictability could play right into the Jets' thrusters.
When we look back, this game could even prove something of a pivotal point for two teams trending in different directions. Of course, the odds are that Belichick's boys will prevail in the final analysis. But with Darnold and Bell going through the gears at home, bolstered by a reliable defense, I confidently expect New York to stay within hailing distance and keep Brady honest. They can surely improve upon the Giants' miserable effort against New England across a range of attractive handicap marks.