EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - The Jets could have made a huge statement by beating the Minnesota Vikings, a true NFC contender, in what would've been their biggest victory of the season. And the Jets' defense did all it could to make it happen.
But in the end, the Jets learned what should have been obvious:
Sam Darnold isn't ready to be a contender just yet...
That's hardly a surprise, given that the Jets are in the early stages of a rebuilding project and Darnold's career is only seven games old, but it was still pretty clear on Sunday against a strong defense that was the NFL's best just one year ago. Darnold was a miserable 17 of 42 for 206 yards with one touchdown. And he also threw three interceptions for the first time in his young career.
But those numbers don't really tell the whole story. He was 2 of 13 for minus-1 yards in the second and third quarter when the game -- and their chances to win it -- really slipped away. And he completed just 11 of 33 passes over the final three quarters.
Now, it wasn't all his fault. First of all, he was playing without the injured Quincy Enunwa and the released Terrelle Pryor, so his receiving corps was pretty thin. He also had several passes that should have gone for first downs that were dropped. Running back Isaiah Crowell and tight end Eric Tomlinson did it on the same series in the third quarter. He also spent much of the game with his back up against his own end zone thanks to a regressive performance by the Jets' special teams.
But Darnold was still off. He looked confused at times by the Vikings defense, throwing to areas where no receiver was. And while the Jets did give time and opportunities to throw deep -- and they gave him plenty -- he was more off than usual on those throws, too.
Maybe it was the cold. It was 46 degrees and windy at kickoff -- in fact the wind gusts reached 40 miles per hour during the game. And the 21-year-old Darnold had only played in one game under 50 degrees in his life, early in his career at USC. He appeared to be blowing on his hand a lot. Maybe he was feeling the effects of the cold.
Whatever it was, he had a chance to step up in class and put the Jets in the playoff conversation. He wasn't ready for that. They weren't either -- especially on offense.
Here are more takeaways from the Jets' disappointing loss to the Vikings…
- While Darnold was struggling in the second and third quarter, it wasn't like he was getting any help from the running game. The Jets had 22 total yards in those two quarters. That's pretty awful.
- The Jets' defense was about as good as it could be for most of the game. The Vikings came in with the 10th-ranked offense, but had only 193 yards through three quarters and finished with 316 yards overall. The Jets' banged up secondary kept Kirk Cousins (25 of 40, 241 yards, 2 touchdowns) from getting many open looks. The key, though, was the Jets' pass rush. They didn't really get to Cousins, but they got close enough consistently to throw him off his game.
- Playing without Enunwa and Pryor, this figured to be a pretty big game for Jermaine Kearse. But not so. He had no catches and he was only targeted twice. Weird.
- The Jets' special teams had been so good recently, but they became a bit of an adventure in the first half on Sunday. First, Andre Roberts muffed a punt and barely recovered it after a wrestling match with Vikings safety Jayron Kearse. Then Lachlan Edwards dropped a low snap at the goal line and shanked a 28-yard punt out of bounds at the 40. And the Jets tacked on a penalty to make it worse. Somehow, though, the defense held the Vikings to a field goal. Of course, Roberts had back-to-back kickoff returns of 53 and 42 yards in the second half, so the Jets' special teams remain an enigma.
- CB Daryl Roberts had a strong game, especially considering the Jets' banged-up secondary was missing S Marcus Maye and CBs Trumaine Johnson and Buster Skrine. Forced into a bigger role in a tough matchup, his coverage was outstanding. He was right there when Vikings WR Adam Theilen made a great catch for a 34-yard touchdown on the first series. Later in the first half, Cousins had Stefon Diggs deep, but Roberts was there to knock the pass away.
- Not the best day for RB Isaiah Crowell, on a day when they needed him to be at his best after they lost Bilal Powell to a neck injury. Crowell had a fumble, a huge drop on a wide open swing pass in the third quarter, and he only rushed for 29 yards on 11 carries.
- Todd Bowles' clock management is a source of amusement and befuddlement. Late in the first half, the Vikings failed to convert on 3rd-and-11 and faced fourth-and-4 at the Jets' 24. There was around 1:20 left and they were clearly kicking a field goal. In fact they were letting the clock run down waiting to call a timeout, which they did with 47 seconds remaining. But why didn't Bowles call timeout? He had three of them. The Jets were going to get the ball back, why not put them in position to have more time on the clock?
- Right before that series, by the way, the Jets basically handed the Vikings that field goal attempt with some atrocious play calling from deep in their own end. They ran a tight end screen on 1st and 20, a run up the middle on 2nd and 25, and a pitch to the right on 3rd and 22? No wonder they ended up having to punt from 4th and 28 from their own 2.
- The referees cost the Jets two points on the Vikings' second series when Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland sacked Cousins right at the goal line. It looked like Cousins' knee went down on the line and the ball was over the plane in the end zone, so it should have been a safety. Bowles looked like he was ready to throw the challenge flag, too. But the officials ruled Cousins' forward progress was stopped inside the 1 -- a curious call that made the play unreviewable.
- C Spencer Long has had problems all year with shotgun snaps, and that continued with several bad ones on Sunday -- including one that led to a bad handoff/fumble between Darnold and Crowell.