The "fourth quarters" of Sam Darnold's first two seasons as the Jets quarterback show some eerie similarities.
In both seasons, Darnold and the Jets opened the final four games by posting rousing comeback victories (at Buffalo last year, vs. Miami this year).
In both, the next games were tough losses (to Deshaun Watson and the Texans last year, to Lamar Jackson and the Ravens this time).
In both, the final two games followed the same script: tough home games against storied franchises whose fans travel well (Green Bay last year, Pittsburgh on Sunday), then finales on the road against playoff-bound division foes (New England last year, Buffalo a week from Sunday).
Darnold, not one to engage in such sports history, says he'll approach this year's final games with the same approach he takes for all games.
"They've got some really good players up front that we're prepared for," Darnold said today of the Steelers. "For me, I've just got to continue to make sure I'm getting the ball out and make sure I'm not staying in there and doing any unnecessary things to kind of cause pressure on myself or hurt the team in any fashion. So I've just got to continue to play smart football."
Coach Adam Gase and Jets fans will agree that they'd like Darnold to make a leap in this year's home stretch similar to but better than his demonstrable progress last year, when he returned from his ankle injury to post the comeback win at the Bills, play the Texans and Packers close, and throw the ball better than he did in his first 10 pro starts.
What fans want to see most are no turnovers, more points and two wins. Darnold got this fourth quarter off on the right foot with one interception and his second home comeback win of the year over the Dolphins. A week ago on Thursday night football, he did some things well but threw the late-first-half pick and lost the third-quarter stripsack.
"I think whenever you throw an interception, especially during the course of a game, it's frustrating," he said. "But you've always got to have a next-play mentality. And that's really part of the tough thing about playing quarterback is being able to bounce back from a bad play. I feel like I've been doing a good job of being able to bounce back. But like I've been saying, hopefully I can eliminate some of those critical errors I've been making in some of these games."
Darnold has been hard at work on reducing gifts and increasing proficiency. In his six most recent starts, even including his two-offensive-TD, two-TO outing at Baltimore, he's completed more TD passes (11) and posted the best passer rating (96.1) and the most starting wins (four) of any six-game in-season stretch in his pro career.
The Steelers' 3-4 front will be a stern test for this progress. Their D is ranked fourth overall and fifth vs. the pass in the NFL rankings heading into Week 16. They're second in interception rate, total takeaways and sack rate. It will be hard to avoid turning the ball over to the Black & Gold.
But Darnold says he and the Green & White are set to do battle.
"They're a very good defense and they're very good up front especially," he said, adding of Pittsburgh's traditional 3-4 front. "Yeah, it can be challenging for sure. ... It can be difficult preparing for it. But we'll be prepared."
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