Patriots vs. Jets preview: Jets must knock off Pats to prove they're legit

Curran: Jets must knock off Patriots to prove they're legit originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Jets are in strange and rarified air right now. At 6-3, coming off a win over the once-mighty (and probably soon to be mighty again) Buffalo Bills, you can’t snort anymore at head coach Robert Saleh’s promise that he’d be saving “receipts” from all the people who dared mock and doubt his team.

The Jets beat the Bills. They beat the Dolphins. They beat the Packers. They’ve won five of six and the only loss was three weeks ago to the Patriots.

That day, the headbanded little hardo Zach Wilson ruined a suffocating performance from his defense by throwing up all over himself in a 24-19 loss in New Jersey. Wilson threw three picks (he’s thrown seven in his last two full games against the Patriots) and the Patriots, amassing just 288 yards on 75 offensive plays, rode five Nick Folk field goals to the win.

After the game, Wilson fielded a question that started, “Zach, how tough is it this team, the Patriots, you haven’t been here for this whole streak, but, obviously, guys talked this week about getting payback from last year…”

Wilson cut off the questioner and said, “Yeah, we’ll have these guys in two weeks.”

Zach Wilson can’t even fathom the fuel that a Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel or dozens of other Patriots would have sucked from that quote.

But that was then and those Patriots. This is now and these Patriots. There’s no ultimate enforcer playing quarterback for New England like Tom Brady to come off the top rope on Wilson or the Jets. The Jets can say they want another piece of the Patriots and – if we’re all being honest – you can’t blame them.

All Saleh and his coaching staff need to do is convince Wilson to stay out of their way. Because this Patriots offense isn’t going to hang 54 on them. Or even 24 unless Wilson props them up with turnovers.

In the first meeting, just three of the Patriots' 12 drives were longer than 50 yards. They managed 10 points on those. Their longest drive was 13 plays and 70 yards. They gave it over on downs. Every single one of their first 10 drives ended in Jets territory and five Patriots drives began in Jets territory. One touchdown. Wilson was the reason they lost.

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I asked cornerback Jonathan Jones if he was expecting a similar Wilson this time around.

“I don’t think he’s gonna do that again,” Jones said after Wednesday’s practice. “I think, you look at the Buffalo game, they kind of found a recipe of how they want to play, and it’s completely opposite of how they played in our game. So, definitely expecting him to come out and be a different player.”

Against the Bills, Wilson was 18-for-25 for 154 with a touchdown and no picks. The Jets drove it on the Bills all game, riding Wilson, rookie wideout Garrett Wilson, a determined rushing attack and that overpowering defense to the massive upset.

Wilson maintains he’s in a “great headspace.”

“We’re winning football games. We’re where we want to be and there’s still so much to improve on, and so from a team aspect we’re excited with where we’re at and this is gonna be a great challenge for us,” Wilson told New York media this week.

The Patriots aura may seem to be on long-term sabbatical but the Jets are still under its spell. They’ve lost 13 straight to New England.

“My mindset this week is taking it one play at a time, how can I make the best decision on that play, don’t get too far ahead of myself as far as feeling like I need a big play or I need to make something happen,” Wilson said. “Just trusting in the offense, trusting in the guys around me.”

Joe Flacco, Wilson’s backup, has a front-row seat to Wilson’s development. Flacco’s forgotten more than Wilson may ever know about the New England defense and Bill Belichick's mystique.

“I don’t think he’s thinking about that, I think he’s confident just in terms of the strides that he made last week [against Buffalo] coming back from a game against New England,” Flacco said, according to Steve Serby of the New York Post. “The fact that our team’s here sitting at 6-3, our whole unit is confident, and I think that always rubs off on people. He’s feeling good, he’s feeling like he’s in the groove, so I think that’s all he has to worry about.”

Forget where the two teams have been for the past two decades. Where they are and what they are now is what matters Sunday. And the Jets are better than New England in 2022. If their quarterback stays the hell out of the way, they’ll prove it.

Prediction: Jets 17, Patriots 16