Jon Gruden calls New York Jets “a handful” as matchup looms

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

Head coach Jon Gruden is refusing to take the winless New York Jets lightly, as his reeling Las Vegas Raiders are set to visit on Sunday.

The New York Jets and the Las Vegas Raiders have played some classics dating back to their American Football League days. Sunday’s latest chapter probably won’t be one of the cross-country rivalry’s finest.

Visiting under their Las Vegas moniker for the first time, the Raiders are set to battle the Jets in Week 13 of NFL action (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The Jets (0-11) figure to be little more than a minor inconvenience as the Raiders (6-5) remain on the cusp of the AFC playoff picture. But Vegas will be forced to rebuild their playoff case as they enter December reeling from an embarrassing 43-6 defeat in Atlanta last weekend.

The brutal experience against the Falcons has caused Raiders head coach Jon Gruden to reiterate that his growing squad can’t take anyone lightly…even the winless Jets.

“If you watch the Jets play (on Sunday), they’re a handful. They are going to be hard to move the ball on,” Gruden said after the Atlanta debacle, per Josh Dubow of The Associated Press. “This will be a fistfight, no doubt about it. I got a lot of respect for the way the Jets are competing.”

The Jets fell by a 20-3 final to Miami on Sunday, but kept pace with a respectable defensive performance that saw them force two turnovers and four sacks. Three of the Jets’ last five losses have come by one possession.

Gruden has had his share of run-ins with the Jets, as Sunday will mark his seventh time facing Gang Green. He owns a 3-3 record in the set, including a 38-24 win during the 2001-02 AFC Wild Card playoffs, a victory that would become the last of his original Raiders tenure.

Perhaps the most impactful defeat in that ledger came last season. In their Oakland swan song, Gruden’s Raiders were in the midst of a surprising playoff push at 6-4 when they came to East Rutherford to battle the 3-7 Jets. But the team was forced to wake from their postseason dreams in the cruelest of fashions: through a 34-3 shellacking at the hands of their hosts. Sam Darnold tallied 315 yards and two touchdowns, while the defense held Oakland to 10 first downs. It more or less sent the Raiders into a tailspin, as they lost four of their final five games to miss out on the final AFC wild card by two games. To date, it’s the last time the Jets have scored at least 30 points in a game.

Nov 24, 2019; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws a pass during the first half against the Oakland Raiders at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Asked in the immediate aftermath about the positives gained in that visit to East Rutherford, Gruden could only smirk and declare “the sun came up today”.

The modern Raiders now have a sense of deja vu, having started last season 6-4 as well before a blowout loss on the road brought them back to earth. Gruden wasn’t interested in comparing this year’s team to last in any way, shape, or form going into their Atlanta visit.

“Everything is different,” Gruden said, per Ed Graney of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Every day-to-day thing we do is different: The way we travel, the way we eat, the way we meet, the way we greet each other.”

So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case from an outsider’s point of view. The Jets, despite their dire predicament, have made it clear that they have no interest in a quest for a goose egg in the win column that would undoubtedly secure them the top overall pick in next spring’s draft. They’ll be looking for some offensive traction as they go into their final five games to avoid complete infamy.

“Our defense is playing well enough for us to win, so we’ve got to get it together as an offense score some points,” guard Greg Van Roten said, per Max Goodman of Sports Illustrated. “Our offense just needs to pick it up. We’ve got to get in the red zone. We’ve got to be more efficient on third downs. We have to score touchdowns.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills set to return to Glendale to take on San Francisco

The Buffalo Bills are once again affected by the NFL’s continuing efforts to schedule games in the wake of the ongoing health crisis.

The Buffalo Bills are returning to the scene of the crime…robbery, to precise.

Buffalo’s Week 13 contest will take them back to Arizona’s State Farm Stadium in Glendale, as restrictions caused by the ongoing health crisis have forced several adjustments to the NFL schedule. The regular home of the Arizona Cardinals will now serve as a temporary base for the San Francisco 49ers, the Bills’ upcoming opponent on Monday. This interconference matchup will keep its Monday spot, with kickoff still scheduled for 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN and ABC.

San Francisco’s movement from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was forced by Santa Clara County’s shutdown of contact sports over the next three weeks. Such restrictions have also affected the football and basketball programs. The 49ers will take on Buffalo next Monday before welcoming in the Washington Football Team six days later.

For Buffalo, this means a return to Glendale, the site of the more heartbreaking losses in recent franchise history. The Bills nearly stole a win from the hosting Cardinals on November 15 but were done in by Kyler’s Murray’s 43-yard miracle toss to DeAndre Hopkins that gave the home team a 32-30 victory.

The Bills (8-3) are no strangers to scheduling changes enforced by COVID-19. Their Week 5 matchup against the Tennessee Titans was moved from Sunday to Tuesday after an outbreak in the latter organization. It was the first NFL game played on a Tuesday since December 2010, when the threat of inclement winter weather forced a game between Philadelphia and Minnesota to be moved. Buffalo’s next game, originally scheduled for the ensuing Thursday night in Orchard Park against Kansas City, was likewise adjusted, moved to the following Monday night. The Bills lost both games.

This will mark Buffalo’s first appearance on Monday night since October 2018, when they hosted New England.

Further adjustments to the NFL schedule involved moving games away from certain days. The long-delayed matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens was moved for a third time, as the game originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night was first pushed to Sunday afternoon and later this Tuesday night. But a new shift, announced on Monday, will stage the NFL’s first Wednesday game since 2012 (3:40 p.m. ET, NBC), when the Democratic National Convention forced the season opener between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys to be played a day before its traditional Thursday spot.

As a result of those delays, both Pittsburgh and Baltimore’s Week 13 games have already been moved. The Steelers will now play Washington next Monday at 5 p.m. ET, while the Ravens will play a day later (8:05 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network) in what was originally a Thursday night tilt against the Dallas Cowboys.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills, Cole Beasley talk about Sunday trickery

Beasley’s touchdown toss against Los Angeles is the Buffalo Bills’ second scoring pass from a non-QB this season.

Kelly, Kemp, Ferguson, Flutie, Bledsoe…Beasley??? 

It’s not likely that Cole Beasley will go down amongst the great passers in Buffalo Bills history, even if his official passer rating sticks at 158.3. Beasley joined fellow non-quarterbacks John Brown and Preston Ridlehuber as the only players in Bills history to earn a perfect mark in the category on Sunday. Buffalo trickery led to the receiver tossing a 20-yard touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis during a tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers at Bills Stadium en route to a 27-17 victory. It was similar antics that allowed the rusher Ridlehuber and the receiver Brown to likewise earn passing scores in 1969 and 2019 respectively (Beasley’s current teammate Brown also had a scoring throw in last year’s playoff cameo in Houston). 

The Bills (8-3) were able to pass the play off as a bubble screen, with Beasley taking a pass behind the line of scrimmage from regular quarterback Josh Allen. Davis faked a block before heading downfield, drawing the Chargers’ attention to Beasley. With the ruse in full swing, Beasley lobbed the ball to a wide open Davis, helping the rookie catcher earn his fourth touchdown pass of the season and to give Buffalo a 14-6 lead in the second quarter.

According to Davis, the gridiron sorcery was several weeks in the making, giving him full confidence that the deception would work. 

“I knew it was going to work,” Davis said, per Jourdan LaBarbour of BuffaloBills.com. “We run a lot of those bubble screens, so as soon as I saw (Chargers cornerback Chris Harris) shoot, I just knew the ball was coming to me and Cole was able to, you know, put a dart. He said he threw it kind of hard to get it in there but…it was a softball. It was an easy catch and I’m glad we could make that connection.”

Mandatory Credit: Jamie Germano-USA TODAY NETWORK

Beasley became the second Bills receiver to flip the narrative of a touchdown pass this season, joining Isaiah McKenzie. The latter threw a four-yard pass to Allen in the infamous loss to Arizona earlier this month. Alas for McKenzie, the passer rating formula left him just short of a perfect mark at 156.2. Since 2018, Buffalo is tied with division rival Miami for the most touchdown passes thrown by a non-quarterback (4, including postseason). 

“My feet weren’t set right, it was really ugly, but it got there. I’ll take it,” Beasley analyzed in LaBarbour’s report. “I was trying to get them to come up and think it was a bubble screen. I just had to have eyes on the safety, make sure he’s not coming over back there. The guys were guarding the guys going deep, so I had a chance to throw it.”

If anyone on the Bills was ready for aerial duplicity, it was likely going to be Beasley. The 31-year-old previously served as an option quarterback at Little Elm (TX) High School, earning 5,071 yards and 40 touchdowns through the air and on the ground combined over two varsity seasons. He did not attempt any passes during his college years at Southern Methodist but got two chances during his seven-year tenure with the Dallas Cowboys, both falling incomplete. 

In addition to his self-deprecation, Beasley was happy to chalk the highlight up to a team effort, complimenting both his blockers and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

“(The blockers) sell it more than I do,” Beasley said, per Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News. “They sell it with the blocks. They give like a three count and then they go. I was trying to get them to come up and thinking it was a bubble screen. I just had to have eyes on the safety, make sure he’s not coming over back there.”

“(Daboll) has done a good job of mixing it up,” he continued in another report from David De Cristofaro of Bills Wire. “He does a good job of keeping them off-balanced and that was one of those times right there.”

Before anyone tells Beasley to stick to his day job, they should be advised that he’s been posting strong numbers on the receiving ledgers as well. He’s currently on pace to set career-highs in nearly every major statistical category, standing at 667 yards on 57 receptions, three of which have gone for touchdowns. 

Allen has praised Beasley for stepping up in recent weeks, particularly with Brown forced out due to an ankle sprain. 

“Cole is very instinctive. He’s a very smart player,” Allen said prior to the Chargers’ visit, per AJ Feldman of RochesterFirst.com. “He knows what windows to kind of throttle down into and get out of and it’s just something we’ve talked about an extreme amount. We’ve watched a lot of film together.”

“I trust him implicitly whenever he breaks in or breaks out. I trust that he did his due diligence of peaking where the defense was. The majority of the time he’s 100 percent correct.”

Beasley and the Bills return to action on Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers in a game moved to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

Buffalo Bills: The best moments in the throwback uniforms

The Buffalo Bills’ beloved throwback uniforms returned on Sunday against Los Angeles. ESM looks back on their finest hours.

With championship dreams approaching this winter, the Buffalo Bills and their fans are ready to party like it’s 1965…the last year the team won an official league championship.

It turns out, the Bills are happy to dress for the occasion as well.

For their Week 12 home tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Bills opted to break out their classic throwback uniforms, an aesthetic more or less defined by the simplified buffalo logo on their helmets. This blast from the past is meant to replicate the team’s look worn from 1962 through 1973, when the “streaking” buffalo was introduced. The Bills’ modern full-time uniforms strongly resemble their throwbacks, but Buffalo completed the look on Sunday with the adjusted helmets.

The gambit paid off. Josh Allen scored through both the air and ground, while Cole Beasley trickery led to a touchdown toss to Gabriel Davis. Buffalo (8-3) took the game by a 27-17 final, allowing them to keep a one-game lead over Miami for the AFC East division lead.

In honor of the Bills’ trip down memory lane, ESM looks to do the same, looking back on when relics from the past previously led to good times in the present…

9/11/05: Carr Wreck

The Bills broke out the throwbacks for the first during the 2005 season opener against the Houston Texans. In a performance that would make Tom Sestak, Mike Stratton, Booker Edgerson, and Georga Saimes proud, the Buffalo defense dominated the day, allowing only 120 yards and earning five sacks and turnovers each. Troy Vincent intercepted Texas quarterback David Carr twice, while Aaron Schobel had two sacks. Chris Kelsay and Takeo Spikes each forced a fumble in the effort as well. On the scoreboard, Rian Lindell booted five field goals to slowly break the Texans’ will, while the lone Buffalo touchdown of the afternoon came on J.P. Losman’s one-yard pass to a then-second-year blocker Jason Peters. The Bills earned a 22-7 victory to kick off the second year of the Mike Mularkey era.

Buffalo wore the throwbacks on the road a week later in Tampa Bay, but the good vibes didn’t come with them in a 19-3 defeat en route to a 5-11 seaso and Mularkey’s eventual resignation.

12/9/07: Royal Entrance

In the midst of a playoff push, the Bills put away notions of a trap game against the 0-12 Miami Dolphins away in the early going. A pair of Robert Royal touchdown receptions from Trent Edwards kickstarted a 24-point first quarter for the Bills, who also enjoyed a separate pair of scoring grabs from Lee Evans. The rookie Edwards completed only 11 passes on the afternoon, but his four touchdown passes were a career-high. Elsewhere, Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch each reached triple digits in rushing yards (uniting for 222 on the ground) while Donte Whitner and Terrence McGee each earned interceptions in the 38-17 win.

Alas for the Bills, that would be their final win of the 2007 season, losing their final three games to drop out of the postseason race.

9/21/08: Edge of 17

The Bills got off to a 4-0 start in 2008, an opening kept alive through a gutsy effort in the throwback against the artists formerly known as the Oakland Raiders. Buffalo’s defense was mostly taking care of business, limiting Oakland to 10 first downs, but turnovers and short drives forced the Bills to face a 23-14 deficit past the halfway mark of the final frame. Through big-gain collaborations with Evans and Josh Reed, Edwards narrowed the gap with a 14-yard scoring pass to Roscoe Parrish, capping off a drive that took just over two minutes. The defense then forced a three-and-out, leading to two more big gains from Parrish and Evans. Lynch would tick off the final yards, situating Lindell from 38 yards out to boot the game winning field goal in a 24-23 triumph.

11/29/09: Defeat Occurs in Real Time

Buffalo introduced the contemporary white version of their throwback during their 50th anniversary season in 2009, coinciding with the American Football League’s 50th anniversary. Matchups with former AFL brethren were marked with special throwback schemes, though the Bills lost these matchups to New England and Tennessee. They broke out the blue version for a visit from the Dolphins, reeling after the firing of head coach Dick Jauron. Happy times briefly returned to The Ralph, however, as the Bills once again used a 24-point quarter to their advantage. Miami led 14-7 entering the final 15 minutes, but Jackson opened the closer with a three-run scoring run to tie it. Most of the tally came over the final 3:35 of game time. Lindell’s 56-yard boot, a career-long, gave Buffalo the lead for good before Drayton Florence’s interception got them the ball back. Terrell Owens cashed in on the very next play with a 51-yard scoring grab from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Another turnover, this one being a Whitner interception, allowed Jackson to add some final insurance, a seven-yard run by Jackson that gave interim head coach Perry Fewell the first of three victories.

9/15/13: He’s the Manuel

Bills fans may well be somewhat spoiled with Josh Allen in town, as some may have already forgotten the failed franchise quarterbacks that preceded his arrivals. Florida State’s EJ Manuel was one of those final attempts. For a brief moment, clad in the white throwback, it truly felt like Manuel was going to be the man to lead the franchise into the future.

Engaged in a back-and-forth thriller with the Carolina Panthers, the Bills trailed 23-17 with 98 seconds remaining. Manuel’s arm accounted for every single yard of the ensuing 80-yard drive that led to victory, capping things off with a two-yard touchdown pass to Steve Johnson…ironcially caught with two seconds remaining in the fourth quarter…that sent Western New York into hysterics over a 24-23 victory. Alas for Manuel, longevity was not to be. He suffered an LCL injury less than three weeks later during a Thursday night game and was never the same upon his return.

9/14/14: Carpe 3’em

The Bills got off to a strong start in 2014, topping the Bears in overtime before opening their Orchard Park slate with a visit from the Dolphins. It turned out to literally be a special victory, as Dan Carpenter booted five field goals and C.J. Spiller brought a kick back 102 yards. On defense, Leodis McKelvin also had an interception, while Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Stefan Charles, and Mario Williams each had a sack in the 29-10 final.

9/13/15: Lucky 27

2015 was the introduction of the Bills’ trippy “Color Rush” uniforms, but the throwbacks kept their early season slot. The aesthetic allowed Buffalo to start the Rex Ryan era off on the right note, scoring the first 24 points in what became a 27-14 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Tyrod Taylor likewise enjoyed a strong debut in Central New York, tallying 195 yards through the air and 41 on the ground. His first Buffalo touchdown was a 51-yard toss to Percy Harvin on the final play of the first quarter. Karlos Williams and Anthony Dixon scored on the ground, complementing a defensive performance that saw interceptions from Ronald Darby and Aaron Williams.

12/31/17: Miami Nice

The Bills’ first playoff appearance in nearly two decades is unusual in that everyone seems to remember the finishing touch: Andy Dalton’s comeback against Baltimore that fulfilled the postseason caveat. But Dalton’s shining moment wouldn’t have meant anything if the Bills didn’t take care of business during their Week 17 visit to Miami. Each team ended the year in a time machine, with the Dolphins likewise clad in their 1970s-inspired throwbacks.

Buffalo responded in perfect fashion, building a 19-0 lead through a strong game from every side of the ball. Taylor kicked off scoring with a 26-yard touchdown toss to Nick O’Leary before allowing Steven Hauschka to take over with three field goals in the onslaught. In the interim, six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams lined up as a fullback and scored on a one-yard push to help put Miami away. Buffalo took the game 22-16 before returning to the locker room to watch Dalton work his magic.

11/25/18: Revenge is Best Served Old

Ten months after the Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars played to a 10-3 victory for the latter in the AFC wild card playoffs, each team’s return trip was more or less canceled, the two sides saddled with losing records in late November. But Buffalo did earn a quantum of revenge in the rematch, topping the Jaguars in a 24-21 tilt in their vintage threads. It was one of the earliest displays of power from Josh Allen, as the rookie quarterback scored through both the air (Robert Foster being the lucky recipient from 75 yards out) and ground for the first time in front of a Central New York crowd. Isaiah McKenzie had the lone non-Allen touchdown, while Poyer and Matt Milano had interceptions.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Three stars from Sunday’s win vs. Los Angeles

The Buffalo Bills’ rushing offense woke up at a perfect time, as they earned a hard-fought victory against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Trickery and rushing ruled the day for the Buffalo Bills in a hard-fought victory.

Cole Beasley threw a touchdown pass to compliment a 172-yard performance from the run game, which was paced by 82 from Devin Singletary. It was enough to give Buffalo a 27-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers at Bills Stadium. The Bills (8-3) has clinched their first pair of non-losing seasons since the 2014 and 2015 campaigns. They maintain a single-game lead on Miami for the AFC East division lead.

ESM looks back on the three stars of Sunday’s big win…

3rd Star: WR Cole Beasley

(3 receptions, 20 yards, 1-for-1, 20 yards, 1 TD)

No. 11 threw a touchdown for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, but Drew Bledsoe was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was Beasley launching his first pass since a 2018 attempt at theatrics in Dallas. It was good for his first NFL completion, a 20-yard scoring strike to Gabriel Davis. The Bills have done some strong work with their disease-prevention tactics (often keeping rookie thrower Jacob Fromm in quarantine in case of an emergency), but if they ever face a situation like the one Denver is facing this weekend, they could well turn to Beasley, who served as an option quarterback at Little Elm High School.

2nd Star: WR Gabriel Davis

(3 receptions, 79 yards, 1 TD)

How ironic is it that, one of the weekend of the 10th anniversary of the Steve Johnson incident, that a Bills receiver bearing the No. 13 in a throwback jersey would come through in the clutch? That was Davis, who not only came through on Beasley’s toss of glory, but also on a pair of deep passes that kept Buffalo drives going. Davis has turned himself into quite the day three steal, and has situated himself as a crucial piece of the Buffalo offensive puzzle moving forward. His performance alongside Beasley came up huge on a day when they were missing John Brown due to an injury.

1st Star: LB A.J. Klein 

(14 tackles, 2 pass defenses, 1.5 sacks)

Klein continued his Buffalo redemption story on Sunday, becoming a strong prescience when the Bills needed it most. On the final drive, with the Chargers going for a desperation drive at the end of the game, Klein earned himself a 10-yard sack, combining with Jerry Hughes for another at the end of the first half, one that partly led to a Los Angeles punt. He had three other tackles for a loss on the afternoon, including a big shove of Joshua Kelley on a third-and-one with the Bills holding on to a 24-14 lead. It limited the damage to a field goal, and helped Buffalo keep a lead they’d never relinquish. Klein has shown that his breakout game against Seattle was no fluke and he’ll no doubt be relied on as the season hits its final stages.

The Bills return to action next Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Three stars from Sunday’s loss vs. Miami

Sam Darnold returned to the field, but the New York Jets’ offensive spark did not, as they fell without a touchdown to the Miami Dolphins.

A relic of the New York Jets’ past put them one step closer toward their future.

Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 257 yards and two touchdown passes, guiding his Miami Dolphins to a 20-3 victory over the Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. New York (0-11) welcomed back Sam Darnold to their lineup, but he failed to keep the offensive progress rolling, throwing two interceptions and only 197 yards in defeat. Miami (7-4), on the other hand, kept pace in the AFC wild card hunt, staying a game behind Buffalo for the division lead and gaining ground on the fallen Las Vegas Raiders in the wild car chase.

ESM does have some game ball to dispense for the Jets, mostly coming from the defensive side of things after yet another defeat…

3rd Star: WR Denzel Mims

(4 receptions, 67 yards)

The Jets’ future with Darnold looks a bit murky, but it’s abundantly clear that Mims has a bright future with this franchise. In the third of what could be dwindling opportunities with the current Jets thrower, Mims earned 67 yards on a quartet of receptions, the primary tally being a 30-yard gain that mostly consisted of yardage after the catch, a gain that brought the Jets out of the shadow of their own goalposts. If the Jets could earn Mims his first 100-yard day and his first NFL touchdown, that just might be enough to call this dreary final stretch a success.

2nd Star: LB Neville Hewitt

(6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF)

A case against tanking comes in the form of Hewitt, who may be the type of player trying to impress both the Jets and other teams moving forward. Hewitt has risen to the occasion over the past three seasons as a reliable depth option, duplicating that process on Sunday against Miami. He gave the Jets some hope in the third quarter with a strip-sack of Fitzpatrick that situated the Jets in Miami territory. Hewitt has signed one-year deals with the Jets in each of the past two offseasons; he’s currently working his way toward a third…and possibly even longer.

1st Star: DL Quinnen Williams

(7 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 sack)

Despite a year from the depths of the football underworld, Williams has taken a major step forward after a difficult season. He was perhaps in the Miami backfield more often than some Dolphin running backs on Sunday, earning a sack of Fitzpatrick and forcing a Matt Breida fumble that set up yet another failed opportunity for the offense. Williams also had a pair of pass breakups in defeat. Not only can the Jets be pleased with his development in a lost year, as Williams is one of the few Jets taking advantage of a season where there’s nothing to lose, but he’s starting to build a bit of a Pro Bowl case as well.

The Jets return to action next Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Geoff Magliocchetti is @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: It’s now or never for QB Sam Darnold

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

The New York Jets are officially eliminated from the playoff contention. But the next six weeks might as well be Super Bowls for Sam Darnold.

The holiday season is upon us and with it comes an endless tide of yuletide excuses for getting out of December festivities. Even in these trying times, there are enough activities in a metropolitan area like New York where social distancing can unite with a sense of supposed fun.

For New York Jets fans, however, a weekend with the in-laws may serve as a perfect excuse for avoiding these final hours. Braving cold temperatures to put up Christmas lights may be more preferable to watching the Jets (0-10) attempt to conjure up a victory.

Even the most die-hard, live-or-die Jets fan would be hard-pressed to list reasons to watch the Jets’ final six games of the 2020 season for non-masochistic reasons. The trek starts on Sunday afternoon against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS), where even the surefire tradition of tailgating has been erased by the distancing mandates. All but one of the adversaries they’ll face would either be in the playoffs if they began immediately or would lose their spot through a tiebreaker. Miami (6-4), for example, is locked into a three-way tie with Las Vegas (another future Jets opponent) and Baltimore for the final AFC wild card spot.  Jets fans have more or less resigned themselves to the idea of forming an unholy trinity with the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns in “earning” 0-16 records throughout the course of NFL history. The primary consolation stems from the fact that an 0-16 record would secure the top overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, where a plethora of gridiron talent, primarily of the throwing variety, will be available. If seeing their name atop of the big boards means there has to be a goose egg in the win column, so be it, the fanbase has seemed to declare.

But the already ludicrous concept of tanking fails to take into account the human aspect involved in the game. Livelihoods could well be on the line as the Jets play out the stretch. For some players, primarily the depth options that have been propelled to the starting lineup through injuries and transactions, strong showings over the next six weeks could well be the difference between suiting up in the NFL or waiting for the XFL to come back.

Then there’s Sam Darnold.

When a team lands into No. 1 pick territory, fans often comfort themselves through knowing a collegiate hero is likely on his way over. That savior is, more often than not, a quarterback, and the pomp and circumstance doubles when a New York team holds the pick in question. Joe Namath, for example, earned his “Broadway” moniker from a Sports Illustrated cover published two months before he threw his first NFL pass. The Jets’ propensity for chaos and football eccentrics is also attached to the quarterback no matter what he does. Darnold has undoubtedly been a victim of kookiness…just look no further than the sophomoric response to his mononucleosis diagnosis last season. The team’s seemingly perpetual rebuild has done little to help matters, as Darnold spent his first two seasons behind a flimsy offensive line racked with turnover.

Yet, in the midst of chaos, Darnold was able to provide ever-so-brief flashes of brilliance that will no doubt be spoken about in anecdotes across the tri-state area. The oncoming December rush could bring forth conversations of his rookie campaign, Darnold leading a game-winning drive in Buffalo during his first meeting against fellow 2018 draftee Josh Allen. Two weeks later, a Festivus Miracle from the Green Bay Packers did nothing to hide the fact that Darnold went head-to-head with Aaron Rodgers and lived to tell the tale. When Darnold returned from his illness last season, he led the reeling, winless Jets to a victory over the Dallas Cowboys. He later gave Jets fans temporary bragging rights over their East Rutherford domicile by outplaying Daniel Jones in a battle with the blue metropolitan team.

The 2020 season was never about making a playoff leap, even with expanded capital. Instead, it could’ve been a throat-clearing year for Darnold, a not-so-subtle warning to the rest of the NFL that the Jets were finally ready to rise. It was to be a year of chemistry and bonding, as a new era was underway with general manager Joe Douglas in tow. One of the first moves Douglas made upon his mid-offseason arrival was to trade for Alex Lewis and convince Pro Bowl staple Ryan Kalil to come out of retirement. That latter move didn’t pan out, but it showed that Douglas was willing to fix the offensive line, whose treatment under predecessor Mike Maccagnan could be described as negligent at best. Douglas spent his first full offseason at the helm building the wall in front of Darnold, drafting Mekhi Becton at No. 11 overall, and adding veterans George Fant, Greg Van Roten, and Connor McGovern. He would partially bolster the skill position slots as well, draft Denzel Mims in the second round to go with free agent Breshad Perriman and returning slot man Jamison Crowder. Many of the additions like Perriman, Fant, and Van Roten, were granted one-year deals or out clauses for 2021. Thus, the 2021 season had the aura of an audition or screen test with a blockbuster star.

Yet, like countless other 2020 happenings, things have not according to plan.

The fact that Darnold has missed four games is concerning, but should not be held against him. Football is a violent game, and one should not be criticized for missing games due to their health. But Darnold is making decisions that would be out of place for a rookie franchise quarterback, never mind the man in the proverbially crucial third year. There have been the trademark flashes of brilliance…such as that long touchdown run in prime time against Denver…but there have been far-too-many head-scratching moves. His 1,045 yards and three touchdown passes are on pace to set career-lows. His numbers currently have him situated in the same category as backups like Kyle Allen and Jeff Driskel. Miami’s rookie thrower Tua Tagovailoa has played three fewer games than Darnold but has already doubled his touchdown pass tally. 

What’s made Darnold’s decline even scarier is that the offense was appearing to gain traction under the supervision of backup Joe Flacco. It didn’t lead to wins, but the numbers are troubling from a pro-Darnold concept. The 614-yard, 55-point output against the Chargers and Patriots are the Jets’ respective best tallies over consecutive games. Flacco also threw five touchdown passes in that span, tied with several others…only Patrick Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger threw more. Perriman had his best game of the season (5 receptions, 101 yards, and a touchdown against New England), while Chris Herndon broke out of a slump to score his first touchdown of the season against Los Angeles, where Mims also set an infantile career-high in yardage (71 yards on three grabs).

Losses ensued nonetheless, increasing the likelihood that the Jets would secure the top overall pick next spring. Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Kyle Trask, among others, will undoubtedly be up for grabs. The trigger-fingers of NFL decision-makers are quicker than ever in the new decade. Miami drew controversy last week when they lifted Tagovailoa for performance-based reasons in a loss in Denver. Darnold’s fellow SoCal college football legend Josh Rosen is perhaps more familiar with the concept than anyone in recent football memory. It took the Arizona Cardinals a single to move on from both he and head coach Steve Wilks. If the Jets gain the top overall pick and Darnold’s outputs remain where they are…and possibly a new head coach on top of it all…they’d be almost foolhardy

Thus, every week might as well be a Super Bowl for Darnold, at least from a personal level.

Darnold’s early 2020 game ledgers are head to be printed alongside a sizable asterisk: over his first six starts, the USC alum did not have the top receiving trio that the Jets envisioned him to have throughout the course of the year. Perriman, Mims, and Crowder finally got to take the field at the same time and Flacco reaped in the benefits. But with the trio ready to go for Sunday…barring any issues related to the ongoing health crisis…Darnold is out of excuses (not that he’d make any as is). The Jets are in a position where it doesn’t matter if they, as a team, win or lose. Darnold needs to play with a coordinated sense of reckless abandon. New York will spend part of these final futile weeks making a list and checking it twice for what they need this offseason. Darnold must make sure that “franchise quarterback” isn’t on that list. Even if wins don’t follow, it’s not like the Jets are completely out of luck. There is talent beyond the quarterback pool, well represented by blocker Penei Sewell, receiver Ja’Marr Chase, and defenders Micah Parson and Patrick Surtain. It’s up to Darnold to prove that the Jets would be better served fulfilling one of those other needs rather than finding a successor to his franchise throne.

It’s not the type of win-or-go-home situation that Jets fans were rooting for at the start of the season. But if you’re looking for a holiday distraction, Darnold’s quest should prove to be enough of a distraction. Either way, provided he stays healthy, the Jets can earn a win before this year is out: that of clarity.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Does Joe Flacco have a future with the franchise?

Joe Flacco played respectably while substituting for Sam Darnold. It’s possible he can play it into a future with the New York Jets.

Those also writing about Joe Flacco’s NFL career likely won’t be using the word “future” much longer.

That’s no slight toward the New York Jets quarterback. Age is a near-undefeated behemoth that has claimed the careers of countless others before him and, at 35, there’s no denying that Flacco’s time is coming. The polarizing ex-Baltimore Raven has built himself a solid NFL career that turned him into one of the major faces of pro football in the 21st century. But his glory days, like his legendary run to Super Bowl XLVII, are long behind him. Football analysts, amateur and professional alike, will likely view his time in a Jets uniform (as well as his eight-game cameo in the colors of the Denver Broncos) through the same, sarcastic lens of Tom Brady’s ongoing Tampa Bay endeavors.

But if this truly is the end for Flacco, could the final, successful chapters be written in green?

With Sam Darnold set to return on Sunday against the Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, CBS) in a situation where his job as the franchise man could be on the line, it stands to reason that Flacco, a free-agent-to-be, probably won’t take the field again unless the former endures yet another injury. Flacco has started four games for the Jets (0-10) this season, all after Darnold injured his shoulder in a loss to Denver on October 1, an ailment reaggravated a month later in Kansas City.

The intent behind signing Flacco was clear: if the unthinkable happened to the developing Darnold (again), the Jets would have a decent-enough substitution to tread water until the younger thrower came back. Additionally, if there was ever an on-field mentor for Darnold, one could’ve done far worse than bringing in a former Super Bowl MVP used to adversity. Josh McCown was the best of both worlds before he chose a brief retirement. Flacco believed he could still start for another team after his reign upon the Baltimore throne ended with the emergence of Lamar Jackson, but willingly embraced such a role.

“It’s where I am right now and I’m glad to be on a team playing football in some capacity,” Flacco said after his signing in May, per Andy Vazquez of USA Today. “I think it’s going to be huge to get in there and know the guys and develop a relationship with the team and do anything I can to help the team get better and in that process, help Sam with whatever he needs help with.”

It didn’t take long for the overwhelmed Jets (0-10) to call upon Flacco to empty whatever was left in his NFL quarterbacking tank. Asking him to fully flip the Jets’ fortunes was a little too much…the New York issues go far beyond the quarterback…but, in a surprising turn of events, the Jets’ struggling offense looked how they were supposed to look in 2020: a rebuilding team that was slowly but surely getting it together.

Over the last two weeks, the Jets have earned 614 yards and 55 points under Flacco’s watch, each of which are season-highs in consecutive games. Flacco has done his part, particularly over the last two games with five touchdown passes and 467 yards, good for a passer rating of 102.6. That made him one of a dozen quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts with a triple-digit passer rating over the last two games. Only Patrick Mahomes and Ben Roethlisberger have thrown more touchdown passes than Flacco in that span, with the mark tying him with Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen, and Justin Herbert (who had three as his Los Angeles Chargers topped Flacco and the Jets last Sunday).

It’s not like Flacco’s tenure was exempt from 2020 Jets shenanigans; he took a 30-yard sack in a shutout loss in Miami and threw a “really bad” pick-six deep in Jets territory in the most recent defeat in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, the undeniable leadership and defacto spark Flacco brought to the lineup was noticed by his teammates and coaches alike.

“It’s been good for the most part,” receiver Breshad Perriman said of his relationship with Flacco after the defeat in Los Angeles, per Jack Bell of NewYorkJets.com. “Of course it could always be better. But it’s definitely going good.”

Working with Flacco, a fellow former Raven, Perriman has earned touchdown receptions in back-to-back games. Two came in the Jets’ 30-27 defeat at the hands of the New England Patriots two weeks ago, good for Perriman’s first 100-yard since last season in Tampa Bay.

“I think you saw it, I think everyone saw it, how well he throws the football,” Jets offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said after the New England game in another report from Vazquez. “This guy, he’s gifted that way, and he did some really nice things for us. He’s really accurate. I do think this guy is a starter in this league, and we’re very fortunate to have the quarterback situation we have right now. And that’s why Joe was brought here.”

. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets have some major decisions to make when it comes to their quarterback spot. These final hours of the 2020 season could mean everything to Darnold, whose status as the face of the franchise could be in major jeopardy if they get the top overall pick in next spring’s draft. Surprisingly, there may be a little more clarity in the understudy role, because no matter who starts at quarterback for the Jets come 2021…be it Darnold, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Field, or an unknown entity…is going to need some form of mentorship and stability behind him. It’s highly unlikely the Jets will replicate the Kansas City Chiefs’ idea and sit a potential draftee for a year. Duplicating the strategy that ended Flacco’s tenure in Baltimore, where Jackson came in partway through his rookie season, is equally doubtful. But having a veteran quarterback on the roster is essential on the rookie franchise quarterback shopping list. Protection is a close second, but the Jets have admittedly been doing well in that regard with the Mekhi Becton selection paying dividends thus far. That’s where Flacco comes into the Jets’ future plans.

For all we know, the Jets’ offensive progress stemmed not from Flacco, but from the fact that the Jets were able to use their top three receivers (Perriman, Denzel Mims, Jamison Crowder) in the same game(s). But if Darnold is willing to carry on the role of the mentor backup, it could be a perfect match and a perfect way to end his career. The role. of a perfect backup quarterback is, if you are pressed into service, don’t be the reason for your squad’s demise. If you can provide mentorship an intuitive sense of know-how to the lineup, that’s an added bonus. Flacco fulfills both of these roles and gives the Jets security for the future.

Flacco, for his part, has not given any indication toward retirement. If he was willing to come back from a neck injury sustained in Denver last season, then mere losses shouldn’t serve a deterrent in advancing things further. If the calling comes, he well could go to a team seeking a quick fix at quarterback to win immediately (the 5-5 Chicago Bears perhaps come to mind as they’re set to revert to Mitchell Trubisky this Sunday night).

But there’s no shame in serving as a veteran mentor to close one’s career. It worked perfectly for guys like Mark Brunell, perhaps one of the most accurate comparisons Flacco will receive. A Super Bowl as a starter was denied to the left-handed Brunell, but he left a lasting mark on the passing antics of the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, much like Flacco did back in Baltimore.

After his time in Jacksonville ended, Brunell would later end his career with the Jets and New Orleans Saints, winning a Super Bowl with the former. That followed a stop with the team then known as the Washington Redskins, where Brunell took over in the mid-2000s before overseeing a peaceful transition of power to Jason Campbell. He would later mentor Mark Sanchez during two further seasons in New York.

Even the accomplished veteran Drew Brees knows how valuable a lauded backup can be. Brees was already well known upon his New Orleans arrival, but mentioned that Brunell helped him reach his ultimate heights. The two would go on to win Super Bowl XLIV together, with Brees capturing the MVP honors Flacco would earn three years later.

“You’re talking about a great mentor in so many ways,” Brees told Bill Baker of The Times-Picayune prior to embarking on that championship trek. “He’s started so many games, started so many big games. He’s played a lot of football at a very high level. He’s been to conference championship games before, been to Pro Bowls; he’s done all those things. He’s played in a lot of interesting systems with a lot of great coaches. There’s just a wealth of knowledge that I can draw from.”

Uncertainty continues to loom over the Jets’ quarterback situation, a feeling that has lurked for far too long. Bringing back Flacco, ironically destined for backup duties, would add a tremendous deal of clarity for a franchise in desperate need of it.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Sam Darnold to start on Sunday vs. Miami

New York Jets, Sam Darnold

After missing the last two New York Jets games with a shoulder injury, Sam Darnold will return for a divisional showdown with the Dolphins.

New York Jets head coach Adam Gase announced on Friday that Sam Darnold will return to the team’s starting lineup on Sunday, as the team heads home to MetLife Stadium to battle the Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, CBS). Darnold will make his first appearance since November 1 at Kansas City, when he reaggravated a shoulder injury suffered a month prior against Denver.

“It’s been a good week for Sam,” Gase said, per Ralph Vacchiano of SNY. “It just looks a lot different from the last time he tried to make a run at going in a game.”

Though the Jets (0-10) are officially removed from the AFC playoff picture, these final six games could mean everything to Darnold, whose 2020 struggles have observers and analysts wondering if he is still the Jets’ future under center. Having missed four games this season, Darnold is currently on pace to set career-lows with 1,045 passing yards and three touchdown passes.

But, right from the get-go, things will be different for Darnold than they were at the start of the season. Sunday against Miami will mark the first time that Darnold is able to work with the trio of receivers the Jets envisioned would be at the top of the depth chart at the start of the year. Darnold will work with second-round rookie Denzel Mims for the third time this season, having previously united with him for 84 yards on six receptions in tilts against Kansas City and Buffalo. Veterans Breshad Perriman and Jamison Crowder will likewise be ready to go. The Jets’ offense has enjoyed a slight resurgence upon the trio’s collaboration, tallying 614 yards and 55 points over the last two games, both of which are season-highs over consecutive games. Joe Flacco took over for Darnold in the meantime, leading the Jets to respectable outputs in losses to New England and the Los Angeles Chargers.

In comments made earlier this week, Darnold praised the progress that the incoming receiving trio was able to make, but also expressed personal excitement to get back on the field and lead the Jets to a victory. New York is the lone winless team in the NFL as the season prepares to reach its final stages.

Obviously, those guys are doing a really good job and are making plays for us,” Darnold said, per notes from the Jets. Regardless of their situation and how well they are playing, I just want to be out there, regardless of that. I’m always going to be eager to want to go out there and play football.”

Darnold is 1-3 against the Dolphins in his career, the lone win coming last season in East Rutherford. He would tally 270 yards and two scores in the Jets’ 22-21 triumph.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Cody Ford out for the year, John Brown to miss Sunday

The Buffalo Bills lose two key pieces of their offense to injury as they prepare to enter a crucial final stretch.

As the Buffalo Bills prepare for a crucial final stretch that could lead to a long-sought division title, they’ll be without two of their key offensive starters, one of which will be done for the year.

Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott announced on WGR 550 that offensive lineman Cody Ford will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a knee injury in Wednesday’s practice and that receiver John Brown (ankle) will miss at least the next game against the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). The Bills (7-3) are looking to clinch their first division title since 1995 and lead the Miami Dolphins a game for the AFC East lead.

According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Ford suffered a torn meniscus and will undergo surgery that will feature a 3-4 month recovery period. It’s the latest blow to a Bills’ offensive line that has seen its share of medical absences. Ford had already missed three games due to other injuries and Jon Feliciano missed the first seven contests after tearing a pectoral muscle before the start of training camp. Mitch Morse has also missed time, and further turnover came when Quinton Spain was released. Ford’s duties will likely be assumed by a combination of Feliciano, Brian Winters, and Ike Boettger.

Brown’s injury is the latest in what’s been a star-crossed season. A calf injury sustained during the third game of the season previously forced him out and he was previously removed from the Bills’ last game in Arizona with an ankle ailment. The injuries have prevented Brown from capitalizing on a career-best 72 receptions and 1,060 yards from last season’s playoff trek.

In other injury news, defensive end Mario Addison (knee) missed Wednesday’s practice. His status for Sunday has yet to be determined.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags