EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Sam Darnold's season starts now. Three games to go, three chances to fill the New York Jets with hope after another non-playoff season. This is how it works for a perennial also-ran: If you can't beat 'em on the field, celebrate your young quarterback's promise and sell the fan base on next season.
The Jets did that in 2018, as Darnold closed his rookie season with a flurry of strong performances. An encore won't be easy, though, because the Jets' upcoming schedule is treacherous. In the final 20 days of the season, Darnold will face three of the NFL's top seven defenses in yards allowed: the Baltimore Ravens (fifth) on Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers (sixth) and Buffalo Bills (third). They're all playoff-contending teams, which means Darnold will get their best.
Darnold, 22, will be exposed to different schemes and different philosophies as he faces the Ravens and Steelers for the first time. It's a difficult challenge for any quarterback, let alone one with only 23 career starts and a quarterback who, quite frankly, isn't playing his best ball.
On Sunday, Darnold showed once again that he has the mental toughness to thrive in the NFL, overcoming a shaky second half to lead two field-goal drives in the fourth quarter, including a 49-yard, 93-second, no-timeout series that culminated with Sam Ficken's 44-yard field goal as time expired. It was the Jets' most dramatic win of the season 22-21 over the Miami Dolphins.
But Darnold knows he didn't play his best game -- not even close.
"I know there are going to be some things on tape that I'm not going to like when I see it," he said. "But for me, I just have to learn from it, our guys have to learn, and we will be better."
Darnold's numbers don't look bad on paper -- 20-for-36, 270 yards, two touchdowns, one interception -- but he had a handful of "young" moments. There was an interception on third-and-3 -- a back-foot throw and a telegraphed pass. There was a third-and-1 from the Miami 14 -- an incomplete pass to Jamison Crowder that probably would've been a first down if he had made like Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and tucked it.
There were a couple of overthrows to open receivers, and there was a near-interception on the next-to-last possession. Lastly, there was a bad sack on the final drive, one that put the Jets in an impossible third-and-18 -- well, impossible until the replay folks in New York overturned an incompletion and ruled pass interference on Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham.
"I shouldn't be taking sacks in the last two minutes, especially when we don't have timeouts, so that was bad by me," said Darnold, scolding himself for a decision that could have sunk the Jets.
Darnold made enough plays to win the game, including a blitz-beating, 37-yard pass to Vyncint Smith to start the game-winning drive. There's a lot to be said for a quarterback who can figure out how to win a game when he doesn't have his best stuff. He demonstrated that quality against the NFL's 30th-rated defense, but he will have to be much better against the Ravens on the road.
He's about to embark on perhaps the toughest three-game stretch of his career, and the offense isn't exactly humming. The Jets managed only two touchdowns (both Darnold scoring passes on Sunday) against a couple of tomato cans in the Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals (31st) the past two weeks. Darnold must raise his game. So must coach Adam Gase, who took some responsibility for Sunday's inconsistent play.
"Once we got into the second half, he had some decisions that I'm sure he's going to want back -- and I had some calls that I definitely want back," Gase said. "I don't think I helped him out enough. I put him in some really bad third-down situations. Some of those things are on me as much as it's on him."
It sounds like Darnold and Gase might need another one of those heart-to-heart talks that occurred four weeks ago. Time is running out. They have three games left to change the spin on the season.