New England Patriots (0-1) at JETS (0-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m.
Spread: Patriots -5 1/2
Robert Saleh seems to be salivating at the chance to “play chess with one of the best chess players in the world.” That’s how he sees his first head coaching matchup against Bill Belichick. And he’s ready – at least as ready as can be. Defensively, Saleh’s been known as a pretty good chess player himself.
He’s not the one to worry about that, though. The real problem is with 22-year-old quarterback Zach Wilson, who gets to match wits with the grandmaster in just his second NFL game.
As great as Wilson may be some day, that’s a lot to ask of a quarterback who is still very, very green. Defenses and defensive players salivate at the thought of facing a rookie quarterback. They look at him like sharks look at chum. They see someone that can be devoured by pressure, rattled by the intensity, and confused by even the slightest deviation from what they might have put on film.
And no one in the NFL has ever been better at disguising his defense’s intentions, altering what’s been on film, and getting inside a quarterback’s head than Belichick. Rookies to him have almost been easy pickin’s over the years. He’s 21-6 all time in matchups against rookie quarterbacks. In fact, last year when his fading Patriots team was beaten by the Dolphins and their rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, it was the first time that happened since 2013 when, remarkably, then-rookie Geno Smith and the Jets did it.
Along the way, he beat Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, and Deshaun Watson. Overall it’s a pretty impressive list.
That in itself doesn’t guarantee Wilson will get humiliated like so many others, or even just lose. The problem is, he has the added disadvantage of playing with a Jets team that’s still finding its way. His offensive line was obviously a mess last week when the Panthers hit him 10 times and sacked him six times, and it’s hard to see how it’s going to be instantly better now that left tackle Mekhi Becton is out 6-8 weeks.
He likely will have Keelan Cole and Jamison Crowder back, and that will help, though it’s a good bet both of them will be somewhat limited. But if the line doesn’t improve and the running game doesn’t instantly get better, it’s going to be easy for Belichick to make Wilson’s head spin.
Now, the flip side is that Saleh gets to face a rookie quarterback too, and he’s surely got a few tricks up his sleeve for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones. His bigger problem is his defense has just been devastated by injuries. He lost defensive end Carl Lawson and linebacker Jarrad Davis in the preseason. Now rookie linebacker Jamien Sherwood and safety Lamarcus Joyner are out for a while. The loss of Joyner has made a young secondary dangerously younger. And Sherwood was replaced by former Giants linebacker B.J. Goodson, who was just picked up off the street.
A young defense and patching in players off the waiver wire … that’s not a good way to prepare for a chess match against Belichick either.
So maybe Saleh and Wilson can play chess with the best of them. Maybe over time they’re going to prove to be equal to the task of facing Belichick’s great mind. But right now the board is just stacked too much against them. Against Belichick, checkmate is only a few moves away.
Pick: Take the Patriots, minus 5 1/2
Prediction: Patriots 23, Jets 13
My record straight up: 1-0
My record against the spread: 1-0