FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — If ever there was a year ripe for change at the top of AFC East it was this one.
And heading into the final week of the regular season, a new standard bearer has emerged with the Buffalo Bills having claimed the division crown and the Miami Dolphins on the cusp of making the playoffs as well.
Left out of the party are the New York Jets (2-13), who successfully avoided a winless season but are staring up from the bottom of the division for the fourth time in five seasons.
And they have some unexpected company in the New England Patriots (6-9), whose 11-season reign atop the division came to an end following the departure of Tom Brady to Tampa Bay for this season.
“I’ve been spoiled being a part of this organization — you have expectations, and those expectations center around winning,” said Patriots special teams captain Matt Slater, who was drafted in 2008 and is the longest-tenured player on the roster. “We just haven’t done that this year. So it’s been frustrating in a lot of ways.”
It’s created a matchup with the Jets on Sunday that is not so much a season finale as a prologue for what promises to be an offseason of upheaval for both teams.
This will almost certainly be the final game for Jets coach Adam Gase, who after presiding over a franchise-worst 0-13 start, is likely to be fired after the game. He is 9-22 in two seasons in New York.
The Patriots are facing another offseason in which they’ll have to figure out their starter at quarterback with Cam Newton’s one-year deal expiring. It’s unlikely he ’ll return after a dismal 2020 that has seen him throw 10 interceptions to just five touchdowns.
The game could also mark the Jets finale for quarterback Sam Darnold, whose future with the team is uncertain. With New York securing the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, it could opt to take a quarterback.
“Whether it matters for the playoffs is not really relevant to us because, and I’ve said this a lot this year, we’re playing for our jobs,” Darnold said.
GASE’S LAST STAND?
If this does is the final game for Gase, one of the reasons will be how mightily New York’s offense has struggled under him. The Jets are on track to finish last in the NFL in total offense for the second straight year, which hasn’t previously happened in franchise history. With that ineptitude and Darnold not making big strides in his third season, Gase knows that’s on him.
“You can go through the games, just like going down the schedule, you think back like, ‘OK, this is why this went the way it did,’” Gase said. “It’s kind of irrelevant at this point when you get to this late in the season. Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of things you wish you could change, but you can’t, so you’ve got to learn from them as it’s going on and try to adjust throughout the season. I think somewhat we did.”
One of the biggest questions in New England since the Patriots were eliminated from postseason contention was whether coach Bill Belichick would use the final two games to give backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham some extra playing time.
Newton started last week against Buffalo, but after the Patriots fell behind he was pulled in favor Stidham. Belichick has been mum about who his plans, and Stidham said he would like to be on the field.
“I would absolutely love to have that opportunity, but again, that’s not in my control and I’m not going to focus on it,” Stidham said. “I prepare like I’m the starter, even going back to last year. That’s how I’ve always prepared each and every week. So, that’s not going to change my mindset and I’m just going to keep grinding and get better.”
Frank Gore is on injured reserve with a bruised lung and rookie La’Mical Perine is on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the first Jets player to test positive for the coronavirus during the season.
That leaves the backfield duties to Ty Johnson and Josh Adams on Sunday. When the 37-year-old Gore went out with a concussion in Week 13 against Las Vegas, Johnson (104 yards and a TD on 22 carries) and Adams (74 yards, eight carries) picked up the slack.
When Johnson sees Gore’s career rushing numbers — exactly 16,000 yards, joining Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton as the only player to reach the mark — he’s amazed. And he doesn’t anticipate being able to match that.
“Oh, hell no,” Johnson said with a smile. “Those are dreams and goals to aspire, but only three people have done that so far, feel me? It definitely speaks a lot about him and the other guys in that category. It’s really crazy, to be honest. … You’ve got to tip your hat off to Frank for that, for sure.”
AP Pro Football Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed to this report.
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