Two winless teams in desperation mode meet to open Week 4
Fans of the Denver Broncos and New York Jets might be watching Thursday night's Week 4 NFL game rooting for their team to lose. With a combined record of 0-6, these two teams are more likely to score the No. 1 draft pick than spark a season-long turnaround toward a playoff spot.
Only six NFL teams since 1980 have earned a postseason berth after stumbling out of the gate with three straight losses. Only one, the 2018 Houston Texans, have completed such a comeback this century. Both teams are already three games behind their undefeated division leaders, neither of whom show any signs of posting three losses over an entire season.
To put their holes in perspective, the Broncos would need to catch up to reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City without their starting quarterback, Pro Bowl defensive leader, and top wide receiver. And the Jets? Their point differential of -57 is the worst in the NFL through three weeks. They've yet to even hold a lead at any point during any game.
So, what do these teams have to play for with their seasons already on life support? Let's start with their coaching staffs. Jets head coach Adam Gase finds his seat so hot that rumors are building he'll be fired with a Thursday night loss. Broncos head coach Vic Fangio is in slightly better shape with injuries weighing down the franchise. But a 7-12 start isn't exactly meeting expectations for his 2-time Super Bowl-winning boss, former quarterback John Elway.
Just as important, there's a slew of players who could find their NFL futures tied to the next few weeks. Jets quarterback and 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold could be on his way out of the league altogether after an ugly start. The Broncos will be deciding on a permanent backup option after Jeff Driskel struggled in place of an injured Drew Lock this past Sunday. Brett Rypien, the nephew of former NFL quarterback Mark Rypien, along with Blake Bortles are potential options.
Like it or not, one of these teams should finally come out of this game with a win. (Although the Bengals and Eagles on Sunday reminded us the dreaded tie still exists in the NFL.) Which one is better positioned to get off the schneid and start building toward... something?
Thursday Night Football: Denver at New York
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 1 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: NFL Network
Spread: Broncos -3
Three Things To Watch
1. Which quarterback will play the most for the Broncos? And can they spark the offense?
We know this much: it won't be Drew Lock. The Broncos' purported quarterback of the future is out for a couple more weeks with a shoulder injury. Jeff Driskel subbed in his place last week but bungled his opportunity against Tampa Bay, dropping to 1-8 a career record as a starting quarterback.
Brett Rypien came off the bench in the fourth quarter, making his NFL debut in place of Driskel. He promptly led the team down the field, completing his first eight passes... only to get intercepted in the end zone. But, he will get the start on Thursday night, continuing a trend at the position for the Broncos in recent seasons.
Brett Rypien will be 9th different starting QB for Broncos since the start of the 2017 season, they are on their fifth different offensive coordinator in the last five years, fourth different QB coach in last four yrs, third different head coach since '16. Not exactly continuity.— Jeff Legwold (@Jeff_Legwold) September 29, 2020
Neither Rypien nor Driskel breeds confidence as an appealing long-term option and there's not even a guarantee the former won't finish what he gets to start on Thursday night. So Denver went out and signed... Blake Bortles? The much-maligned former Jacksonville starter whose career record is 24-49? Oh boy.
The Broncos still have some young offensive weapons despite wide receiver Courtland Sutton on injured reserve. Last year's first-round pick, tight end Noah Fant, continues to develop with a team-high 14 catches in three weeks. This year's first-rounder, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, is right behind him with 13 despite fighting a rib injury. But Jeudy, a deep threat, needs someone capable of throwing him the ball downfield... instead of to the other team.
2. Can Sam Darnold turn his year around?
The third year was supposed to be the charm for Darnold with the Jets. Instead, it's been a downward spiral with Week 3 rock bottom against Indianapolis. Darnold produced three defensive scores for the other team — two pick-sixes and a safety — on the way to a 36-7 laugher that was never close.
Gase refused to consider benching Darnold this week, insisting to reporters, "He needs to keep playing." Backup quarterback Joe Flacco is coming off neck surgery and will likely remain inactive this week; the Jets' other option, Mike White, has never played in an NFL game.
So Darnold will press on despite the worst passer rating (70.7) in the AFC. His 5.9 yards per attempt ranks 31st in the NFL, ahead of only rookie Joe Burrow and the Eagles' Carson Wentz. The struggles look worse considering Josh Allen, a fellow 2018 draftee, plays in Darnold's division and has led the Bills to a red-hot 3-0 start.
"I've just got to play consistent," Darnold said to reporters after the game. "I'm just not playing consistent enough to play well in this league. Make the plays that are there and when they're not, just get rid of the ball, check it down, do all the right things I need to do."
There's one glimmer of hope for Darnold Thursday night: the Broncos have only two takeaways in three weeks. The defense is far less imposing missing three defensive starters, including newly injured defensive end Jurrell Casey (torn biceps, out for the year). No Von Miller will help an improving offensive line for the Jets, even if first-round pick Mekhi Becton cannot play (shoulder injury, questionable).
However, it's time for the 23-year-old former prodigy himself to step up. While Gase has shouldered the blame, an offensive mastermind hired to shepherd Darnold's development, he can't go out onto the field and throw himself. A fast start for the Jets offense is crucial as, again, the Jets have never even held a lead at any point during the 2020 NFL season.
3. Can the Broncos' run game make the difference?
Darnold has found his life even more difficult with 37-year-old Frank Gore as his lead running back; Le'Veon Bell is sitting on injured reserve with a hamstring issue. Gore struggled to gain just 57 yards last week and will face an uphill battle with the Broncos' eighth-ranked run defense.
Free-agent pickup Melvin Gordon III, by comparison, has yet to catch fire with the Broncos. But the former 1,000-yard rusher with the L.A. Chargers has a better shot at success playing a team allowing 133.0 rushing yards a game (24th in the NFL). There's also a chance Phillip Lindsay joins him in the backfield after suffering through a turf toe injury the past few weeks. That 1-2 punch of Pro Bowl-quality talent may be enough in a game where both offenses are expected to be dreadful.
In theory, the Jets should have a real shot Thursday night. The Broncos are playing without nearly a half-dozen starters, minimum, and have struggled to move the ball on offense. Their defense is a step behind last season and has struggled to pressure the quarterback without Miller.
But it feels like their franchise is rudderless, Gase and Darnold going down with the ship as they're inextricably linked together. Nothing either has done this season, from the Jets' lack of discipline to sloppiness with the football, instills confidence they'll be able to flip the script. And when so many rumors surround someone's job security... those rumors typically have teeth. Gase is in a no-win situation and no win Thursday could mean he'll find a pink slip on his desk after the game.
Prediction: Broncos 31, Jets 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.