FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The New York Jets have been looking up at the New England Patriots in the AFC East for nearly two decades.
Since 2002, actually.
That's the previous time the Jets won the division that Tom Brady's bunch has had a stranglehold on for what seems like forever. And, consider this: Current New York quarterback Sam Darnold was only 5 years old then.
Yeah, it has been a while.
"I think winning the AFC East comes along with beating the Patriots," Darnold said. "But you've also got to beat other teams as well and have a good season. And to make that happen, you have to take it one week at a time."
The undefeated Patriots (6-0) head to MetLife Stadium on Monday night to face Darnold and the Jets (1-4), looking for their fourth straight season sweep of the AFC East rivals.
Watch the game LIVE on TSN1, TSN3, TSN4 and TSN Direct at 8:15pm et/5:15 pm pt.
Well, not so fast, says Le'Veon Bell.
"It's going to be a fun game," the Jets running back said. "And I think we have a really great opportunity to shock the world in a sense."
That's because few are giving New York much of a chance in this one, with New England opening as a 12-point favourite on the road. There's also the not-so-distant memory of the Patriots rolling over the Luke Falk-led Jets 30-14 four weeks ago.
The difference this time, of course, is Darnold is back under centre after missing that game while recovering from mononucleosis. After leading the Jets to a 24-22 victory over Dallas last week and being selected the AFC offensive player of the week for his performance, Darnold sees plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
And, not only that. Confident, too.
"Once all the guys are back together, I think we're unstoppable as an offence, or we can be," Darnold said. "It's up to us how much we execute or how well we go out there and play. It's really up to us how many points we score. I think we're capable of scoring so many points and our offensive line too, the way they played last game.
"With the way we've been running the ball and the way they've been protecting, I think the sky is the limit for us."
The Jets had been struggling mightily without Darnold at quarterback, particularly in the two games Falk started when New York had just 233 total yards against New England and Philadelphia.
Darnold's return allowed Adam Gase to open some things up against Dallas as the Jets put up 382 yards. Darnold was 23 of 32 for 338 yards and two touchdowns — a 92-yarder to Robby Anderson and a 5-yarder to Ryan Griffin — and an interception.
"He looked great last week, just knowing what he wanted to do, getting the ball down the field," Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty said of Darnold. "So, we've just got to be aware it's going to be different from just that aspect of the first time we played them, we really had their third quarterback in there."
The Jets are still waiting to get second-year tight end Chris Herndon back. He was suspended the first four games by the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Then, on the verge of returning to the team two weeks ago, he injured a hamstring while working out on his own. He's expected to miss the game against the Patriots, but will eventually give Darnold another target he developed chemistry with last season.
The offensive line is dealing with some injuries, too, with Gase having to shuffle things up front.
New York could get linebacker C.J. Mosley back from a groin injury that has sidelined him since the season opener. Gase likened his impending return to getting a starting quarterback back.
"We're moving in the right direction," Bell said. "I've been talking about getting the ship sailing in the right direction. We're starting to slowly turn that ship. I remember three or four weeks ago, everybody was saying I was crazy."
It might already be too late this season for the Jets to dethrone the Patriots, who have won the AFC East for 10 straight years and 15 of the past 16.
But the Jets know pulling off a victory Monday could provide a building block for their own future — which someday could include them sitting atop the division again.
"When you get locked in on trying to break the dynasty or tear them down, that's when you start losing control of yourself and losing control of your emotions during the game," Darnold said. "For us, it's continuing to take it one game at a time and just focus on this game plan, what we need to do, the certain looks that we get, how we're going to adjust to those and go about the game that way.
"Because if we get outside of ourselves, and try to take down Tom Brady, take down (Bill) Belichick, those are all legit things. But for us, it's really just about focusing on what we need to do and how we need to execute."