In ordinary times, you'd think most players on teams with a 2-13 record would already have their suitcases packed, and flights and resorts booked for some warm-weather getaways with their families or significant others. But this is an extraordinary time as the NFL will complete its 2020 regular season, contested during the coronavirus pandemic, this weekend and the New York Jets have proved during their modest two-game win streak that they are not a common group.
"The guys have been uplifting every week, even losing as many as we have," said QB Sam Darnold. "At the same time winning cures everything. When you win, the guys have more energy throughout the week. When we were 0-13 guys were still coming in the building ready to work. It's a credit to the type of guys we have in the locker room. Really good dudes and guys I love playing with."
The "dudes," who were 17-point underdogs against the then 9-4 Rams and 9.5-point underdogs to the then 10-4 Browns, followed up a hard-fought 23-20 win at LA with a 23-16 triumph over Cleveland at MetLife Stadium. They've found a winning formula and they'll face the Patriots on Sunday with an opportunity to close the season on a three-game tear while giving their longtime nemesis its 10th loss for the first time since 2000, which happened to be Bill Belichick's first season in New England.
"Darnold is back in the lineup, looks like he's gained some confidence and their level of execution has improved," Belichick said of the Jets. "Defensively, this is a pretty disruptive team especially in the running game. They're at the top of the league in negative runs and they don't give up a lot of big plays."
Darnold, who was out with a shoulder injury when the Jets lost a 30-27 decision to the Pats in November, has gone a career-high three consecutive games without a turnover. From Weeks 14-16, Darnold's numbers were modest while connecting on 58% of his throws, averaging 171 yards through the air and totaling 3 TDs. But he is seeing the field better of late and the decision-making has been sound.
"It's doing everything that I can to help the team win," Darnold said. "It sounds obvious, but the more times you can end the possession with a kick, whether that's a field goal, a punt or a point after, that's how you want to play a game. You want to play the field position battle and not give the other team opportunities to score or make it easier on them. So, I'm just going to continue to do that this last game, because that makes my job and everyone else's job on the team a lot easier."
Nothing has come easy for the Jets this season and that included a final week that saw the club have its first player — rookie RB La'Mical Perine — test positive for COVID-19. Ty Johnson and Josh Adams will handle the backfield chores after Frank Gore headed to IR with a lung contusion. And despite facing more adversity, the Jets are eager for their final chance and a crack at the Patriots.
"Whether in matters or not for the playoffs or not, it's really irrelevant to us," said veteran guard Greg Van Roten, who grew up a Jets fan in Rockville Centre, N.Y. "I've said this a lot this year — we're playing for our jobs. The fact that it's a division game makes it more exciting and the fact that it's on the road, typically it would be a cool environment. It kind of stinks this year, but we're definitely going to go in there and looking to win our last game of the season."
The Jets have lost their past nine games at Gillette Stadium and their last 11 regular-season contests in Foxborough, Mass. They'll meet a Patriots team that has been in a free-fall of late, dropping three in a row by an average score of 28-8. Also, the Jets can gain a split of the season series after squandering a 10-point second-half lead to the Pats last month. That was a Green & White team still finding its way as opposed to the outfit that now knows exactly what it is.
"It's been a special group," said veteran safety/special teams captain Matthias Farley. "I'm very grateful to have been a part of it and then to win these last two games given how the first 13 went, it speaks to the testament and character of the guys in there and the love we all have for the game and each other. We're going to go out there and compete at the highest level week in and week out. No one is going out there with any expectations other than to get a win."
Only one time in NFL history has a team won its final three games after losing 13 straight to start a season. And if you're looking for good omens, that Baltimore Colts club finished strong in 1986 and then came back and claimed the AFC East in 1987.
Late Sunday afternoon, the Jets 2020 season will reach its end with the calendar already flipped to 2021. With some intriguing youthful talent in-house, draft capital that includes five picks in the first three rounds in April, a pair of first-round selections and and the No. 2 overall pick, and financial flexibility, there is reason for hope. But the next round belongs to the fighters who are set to make their final statement.
Head Coach Adam Gase said: "It's unfortunate it took us so long to get going but any time these guys can feel a win and our coaching staff and our organization can get that taste in your mouth of winning multiple games in a row, you want to have that."