The reason is easy and it is all because of another encouraging performance by rookie quarterback Sam Darnold.
While Darnold could not produce his second career game-winning drive in a 29-22 loss to the Houston Texans, he does give the Jets and their fans a high level of optimism heading into the last two games.
Seeing what kind of follow-up performances Darnold could produce would be intriguing regardless of the opponent, but an added layer of intrigue exists for the 4-10 Jets due to the opposing quarterbacks.
First up is Aaron Rodgers (assuming Rodgers plays since he injured his groin last week) and the Green Bay Packers this week at home in a matchup of non-playoff teams and then a visit to New England to face Tom Brady for the first time.
“During the offseason, I look at Aaron all the time, first of all just to watch some of the cool throws that he’s able to make,” Darnold said of possibly facing Rodgers. “He really is the most talented person I’ve ever seen the way he’s able to get rid of the ball and throw the football.
“Just from that aspect, it’s fun as a quarterback knowing how hard the position is, knowing how hard it is to play, it’s really cool to be able to watch someone really make it look so easy.”
The Packers entered this season with Super Bowl aspirations. Instead, they are limping into New York with a 5-8-1 record to face the Jets in a battle of also-rans.
Nonetheless, the Packers will be playing to win rather than trying to secure a last-place schedule and bolster their draft positioning. That includes playing Rodgers, who has played through a knee injury all season and then hurt his groin in last week’s loss at Chicago.
“I think it’s a lot about leadership,” Rodgers said of his desire to play the Jets. “If I want to be listened to and followed and looked up to, how could I stand here and say that these games that don’t matter for playoffs, I’m going to cash it in? That’s just not the way I lead, and I’m super competitive, and I want to be out there with the guys, and I look forward to being out there.”
Green Bay’s offense has been dysfunctional all season. In fact, it’s only about a field goal per game better than it was last season, when Brett Hundley played quarterback for half the season with Rodgers sidelined by a broken collarbone. In seven games since they bye, they’ve scored 17 points in four of them — all losses.
The Jets field one of the worst defenses in the NFL, including No. 22 in total defense and No. 26 in scoring. However, they rank second on third down and will challenge a Packers offense that is No. 22 on third down.
“You look at their defense that I’ve been watching quite a bit the last couple of days, you know they’ve got some good players at every single level of the defense,” interim head coach Joe Philbin said. “Obviously, Leonard Williams up front’s a guy that kind of catches your eye quite a bit. (Avery) Williamson has been a very, very good linebacker in the league for a couple of different teams. And their safety really jumps off the tape. I mean, the safety, No. 33 (Jamal Adams) is excellent. He’s all over the place.”
Injuries have been and continue to be an issue for Green Bay. Running back Aaron Jones, who leads the NFL in yards per carry, was placed on injured reserve this week and veteran receiver Randall Cobb is in the concussion protocol. Jones is the 14th Packer to land on IR, a list that includes eight starters.
“It’s pretty extensive,” Rodgers said of the injury list. “You know, looked at the roster preseason, and felt good about obviously a number of positions, and we’ve had some injuries at some important spots for us. Obviously, (receivers) Geronimo (Allison) and Randall being hurt for a number of games, the offensive line injuries that we’ve had. It’s been a tough year injury-wise, but we’ve still had our chances to put ourselves in position to make a run.”
The Packers are trying to avoid some ugly history. They are 0-7 on the road and trying to avoid their first winless season away from home since the 1950s. Green Bay and San Francisco are the only teams without a road win this season.
Darnold enters the first of his two matchups with future Hall of Famers after two performances that served as a positive sign. In the last two games, he completed 40 of 62 passes for 423 yards and three touchdowns, doing so after sitting for three games with a foot injury.
“He’s just comfortable,” head coach Todd Bowles said. “When he’s playing his game, he’s not trying to be perfect. He’s just trying to play football. He’s enjoying playing football. That comes game-by-game. Obviously, having success has something to do with it, but when you sit out a while, you get to step back. When you come back, you’ve learned a little bit. He looks like he’s learned quite a bit.”