The Patriots will close out the regular season with a visit from the Jets on Sunday with a chance to lock down the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win. Although New England can determine its fate on the field by beating its AFC East rivals, Bill Belichick wasn't interested in talking about the importance of earning a bye during his Wednesday press conference at Gillette Stadium.
"We're just going to do the best we can to go out and play as well as we can against the Jets," he said when asked how much a bye was needed. "That's all we can do. So, whatever happens after that, happens. Can't control it. We can control how we play this week and do the best we can."
Of course, the Patriots do indeed control their seeding in the AFC thanks to Sunday's win by the Eagles over the Texans. That dropped Houston to a 10-5 record, tied with the Patriots, and thanks to a head-to-head victory over the Texans in Week 1 the Patriots hold the tiebreaker.
Therefore, the formula for the Patriots Sunday is simple: win and enjoy a week off while preparing for the divisional round.
In order to do that the Patriots will have to deal with the Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, who missed the first meeting between the teams due to injury. Belichick talked about Darnold and several other items of note during his press conference.
Sam I am – In many ways Darnold has been a typical rookie quarterback for the Jets this season. He's shown periods of promise, made his share of mistakes and also dealt with injuries. Lately his play has been on the rise.
Since missing time midseason due to a foot injury, Darnold has performed well. He's tossed six touchdown passes and just one pick over the past three weeks, and the Jets have been very competitive during that time.
Belichick talked about the rookie's play as he discussed the Jets.
"Good decisions, accurate, probably better timing and execution in the passing game with his receivers, more yards, more touchdowns, fewer turnovers," Belichick said when asked about the recent upswing in Darnold's production.
"Darnold's a big, athletic kid. He can certainly move if he has to. He can get out and escape the rush. He's done that plenty of times. He has a solid skillset, no question about it – good arm, can make all the throws, big, strong kid, hard to get down in the pocket, has good feet, can get out if he needs to."
Special attention – During the bye week, Belichick made changes to some of his personnel on special teams. He added a couple of veterans in Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber, and the results have been positive.
The Patriots have gotten their hands on three punts over the last three games, including Sunday against Buffalo when Matthew Slater deflected Matt Darr's kick.
Belichick was asked the improvements and talked about Slater and Nate Ebner specifically.
"I think there's room for more improvement," Belichick said. "We'll certainly get tested this week, so whatever it was or wasn't in the past I don't think really makes too much difference. They have a real good understanding of what we're doing and then they also are able to see what our opponents are doing, what scheme they're using, whether it's a protection scheme or a blocking pattern in the return game or maybe a coverage pattern for our return game. So, they give a lot of valuable information on that."
High-five – After missing most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, Dont'a Hightower has been relatively healthy in 2018. He missed just one game (Oct. 29 at Buffalo) and has been steady if unspectacular at linebacker for the Patriots this season.
Although his numbers aren't eye-popping – he has just 46 tackles (which is a career low for a full season), a sack and an interception – Belichick was happy with his play thus far.
"He's had a good year," Belichick said. "He's had a good spring, a good training camp. He missed the first Buffalo game, but he's missed very few snaps all year in practice and in games. He plays in different packages and we haven't put him out there for every snap, but he's held up well and played well. I think he's gotten in on a lot of plays in the running game, in the passing game, rushing the passer, some coverage plays, pursuit plays, things like that. So, yeah, he's done a solid job for us."