Sam Darnold's improvement has caught Bill Belichick's eye


FOXBORO -- The Divisional Round beckons. Again. All the Patriots have to do to get there is beat the Jets.

What could possibly go wrong?

In Vegas, the Patriots are 13-point favorites. They're going up against a rookie quarterback who set the record as the youngest passer to start a game in the Super Bowl Era. They're playing a defense that ranks 21st in run defense (4.6 yards per carry allowed) and 16th in pass defense (7.5 yards per attempt). It's a defense that just logged 90 snaps against Aaron Rodgers and lost.

But there are reasons for the Patriots (10-5) to take the Jets (4-11) seriously. Reasons that go beyond the obvious in terms of postseason implications.

That rookie quarterback, Sam Darnold? Statistically, he's been one of the best in the league over the course of the last three weeks since returning from a foot injury. In that time, he's sixth in quarterback rating (106.2), he's seventh in yards per attempt (7.9), and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is 6-to-1.

Darnold is playing like a different quarterback than the one for whom the Patriots prepared back in Week 12.

"He’s gotten better," Patrick Chung said Wednesday. "He’s gotten better. It seems like he’s calmed down a little bit. He’s making the right throws, he’s making good decisions, he’s doing it really fast and he’s athletic enough to make plays. I mean, he’s definitely come along. It seems like he’s grown up a little bit – not saying grown up in like a bad way, but he’s playing pro football, playing like a good quarterback."

The Jets offense features plenty of West Coast principles, which have at times given the Patriots fits in 2018. Bill Belichick's defense held its own against West Coast style schemes trotted out by the Packers and Vikings. But teams like the Chiefs, Bears, Colts, Lions and Titans all have their roots in the West Coast system.

The quick-hitting pass plays the Jets like to use get the football out of Darnold's hands quickly and force defenses to cover moving horizontally. In his last outing, Darnold spread the ball around to seven different targets, completing passes to receivers Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse, running back Elijah McGuire and tight end Chris Herndon for at least 50 yards each.

"The essence of the offense is to have a lot of moving routes, get the ball quickly to a player on the move and let him run with it, whether it’s inside out, outside in, in the seam, backs," Belichick said. "So, they don’t like to stand back there and work side-to-side on the field and spend all day in the pocket."

If Darnold can distribute early in downs that could help keep the Patriots pass rush from impacting the game the way it did when these two teams last met and Josh McCown was sacked twice and had 27 of his dropbacks disrupted by defensive pressure. 

"Yeah, he’s had a couple of [good games] now," Belichick said. "Good decisions, accurate, probably better timing and execution in the passing game with his receivers, more yards, more touchdowns, fewer turnovers."

Defensively, though Jets numbers are middling, they do match up with running backs well. They come in at No. 3 in terms of defending backs in the passing game, according to Football Outsiders, which could help them against a Patriots passing game that may have to feature James White and Rex Burkhead more frequently with their depth at receiver thinned. 

It's also going to be a challenging weekend for the Patriots kicking game, as Andre Roberts has established himself as one of the best return men in the league. He averages 29.3 yards per kick return, 14.7 yards per punt return, and he's scored in both facets of the return game. 

The Patriots should win this game. They're at home. They're more talented than the Jets. They have more to play for. 

But the Jets are a team that poses its share of problems.

"This will be a big challenge for us," Belichick said. "We’ll have to play better than we did in the last game. They’re definitely better than they were when we saw them, whatever it was, six weeks ago. So, it will be our challenge to improve and match up."

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