Both the New England Patriots and New York Jets understand how much a quarterback means to a football team. You can look no further than Tom Brady's bevy of NFL records and championship rings to understand his value to the Patriots offense the past two decades. Even during a below-average season (by Brady's standards) he's the key to their chances for a record seventh Super Bowl victory at age 42.
The Jets, meanwhile, have spent much of Brady's two decades of success searching for their own quarterback — only to fall flat. Hopes are high for Sam Darnold but his bout with mononucleosis may have already derailed their season just five games in. The illness forced him out for three weeks, during which the Jets went 0-3 and suffered through an ugly, 30-14 loss to the Patriots on Sept. 22. Replacement Luke Falk failed to throw a touchdown pass during that stretch, posting 16 sacks and four turnovers in what became a lifeless offense.
Darnold's return last week spurred the Jets to a stunning 24-22 upset of the Dallas Cowboys at home. The Patriots, however, offer a whole new level of competition for a 1-4 Jets team who remains overmatched against a divisional rival that's trounced them for much of the past two decades.
New England at New York
Kickoff: Monday, Oct. 21 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Patriots -10
Three Things To Watch
1. Which Jets offense will show up?
Darnold's return invigorated the Jets offense last week right out of the gate. Their 21 first-half points fell just short of the 23 they scored in three full games with him on the sidelines. There was a season-high 92-yard TD pass to Robby Anderson, completions to seven different receivers and perfect (2-for-2) red zone efficiency.
Problem was, that 13-for-18, 218-yard start fizzled out once the Cowboys defense made some second-half adjustments. Darnold was a more pedestrian 10-for-14 in the second half, throwing for just 120 yards and coughing up an interception. His offense could score only three points as the Cowboys charged back, missing out on a two-point conversion that would have tied it in the closing seconds.
You better believe Bill Belichick is running through that game tape to see how the Cowboys suddenly kept Darnold in check. And the Patriots' league-leading defense will present a far stiffer challenge for the young quarterback to navigate. They've yet to allow more than 14 points in any game and are holding teams to just 4.60 passing yards allowed per play. Darnold can't make a single mistake if he hopes to corral his team to a second straight upset at home.
2. Will Tom Brady clean up his act?
Brady's stats continue to push the limit of Father Time. Six games in, he's got 10 touchdowns to three interceptions, a quarterback rating of 97.5 and a 6-0 record under center. It's a stat line that would make even a 42-year-old Brett Favre or Joe Montana jealous.
But there's still a tinge of nervousness among Patriots fans Brady is always on the verge of that "step back." He's turned the ball over in three straight games, including an uncharacteristic lost fumble against the Giants this past Thursday night. His sack total has also ticked up, getting brought down seven times in just the last two weeks alone (he was sacked three times in the first four games). Injuries to other premier quarterbacks around the league, most recently Patrick Mahomes, will leave the Patriots looking to leave a little extra protection.
But the Jets offer an opportunity for Brady, in particular, to clean up his act. He played an efficient, effective game against them on Sept. 22, throwing for 306 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers. Two of his weapons, Phillip Dorsett and Rex Burkhead, are expected to return after battling injuries the past few weeks. (Both were limited practice participants on Friday).
Even if Josh Gordon sits out with an ankle injury, the Jets defense is soft enough for Brady to fine-tune his passing attack. Their 262.2 yards allowed ranks just 21st in the league.
3. Special teams play
One of the potential weaknesses for the Patriots over the long-term is at kicker. Mike Nugent is filling in for the rest of the season after Stephen Gostkowski, the all-time Patriots leader in points and field goals, was sidelined with a left hip injury in early October.
In two games thus far, Nugent has missed a 40-yard field goal and an extra point. His longest field goal made is 37 yards (also happens to be his age) so he remains untested this season in long-range situations.
The Jets know all about these types of special teams woes; they've gone through four kickers since the start of the preseason and Chandler Catanzaro's surprise retirement. One of them, Kaare Vedvik, cost them a game in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills before being unceremoniously released. (Sam Ficken seems to have finally won the job here for the rest of the season).
So getting the ball through the uprights may be a bit of a problem Monday night. But what should scare the Jets far more is the Patriots' recent ability to disrupt opponent punts and kicks. In two of the last three weeks, they've scored points off a blocked kick or punt, including one against the Bills that wound up swinging the game. A similar sloppy mistake may be all it takes for a Jets team that can’t afford any turnovers to win.
Sam Darnold does look to be the real deal, a talented quarterback who can over time elevate the Jets back to respectability. But he needs help, assistance that to this point has not been provided from free-agent pickups like running back Le'Veon Bell (no more than 68 rushing yards in any game this season).
It's hard to see the Patriots defense providing a chance for Bell and others to find their groove. Darnold will get yet another reminder of why Tom Brady and company are the goal to shoot for someday.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Jets 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.