Picture this, Jets fans: A win over the Patriots on Sunday at Gillette Stadium would make the Jets 7-3 and vault them into first place in the AFC East with seven regular-season games to play.
First place and the Jets haven’t been dance partners in quite some time. It’s been 20 years since the Jets won the AFC East, when they finished 9-7 in Herman Edwards’ second season as head coach and they went on to lose in the divisional round of the playoffs.
After that 2002 season, the Patriots went on to win the AFC East 17 of next 18 years until Tom Brady took his talents to Tampa.
Still, for the Jets to get to where they want to go, they know they must go through New England, which is something they’ve failed to do in the past 13 meetings, including three weeks ago when they lost to the Patriots 22-17 in a mistake-marred affair at MetLife Stadium.
The Jets, who own a one-game lead on the 5-4 Patriots at the moment, have a chance to right that wrong Sunday in Foxborough, where they’ll get their rematch and a chance to not only to separate themselves but beat New England for the first time since 2016.
The Jets have been very cautious to give credit where credit is due for the Patriots’ Oct. 30 win, but they know they gave that game away.
They let it get away thanks to three ghastly interceptions thrown by second-year quarterback Zach Wilson and a killer roughing the passer penalty on Jets defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers that negated a pick-six by cornerback Michael Carter II that would have given them a 17-3 lead before the half.
“If we had the pick-six before halftime, we blow them out,’’ safety Jordan Whitehead said after that game.
That game-turning sequence was followed by Wilson carelessly heaving balls into the arms of New England defenders in the second half to doom the Jets.
The mistakes were chum for Bill Belichick, whose teams have made a living for years under his watch feasting on them and making teams pay.
“New England has been that way forever,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday as his team reconvened after its bye week. “You walk away and you’re like, ‘Man, if we just don’t do this,’ and they do it all the time. They force you into mistakes. They force you into shooting yourself in the foot.
“They’ve got a saying over there, ‘Do Your Job.’ If a player is there long enough, they probably hear it a thousand times in a week. They do their job as good as anybody. They’re very disciplined. They’re very sound in all three phases.
“They got after us on special teams the last time we played them. They ate us up in the field-position battle. They win in different ways. It may not be demonstrative on the stat sheet. It may not be demonstrative on the tape, but at the end of the day, they’re winning. That’s a testament to their coaching staff and their players and the way they play.’’
In theory, Saleh’s young team learned a lesson from the last meeting: Don’t give away any freebies to the Patriots, because they’ll come at a cost.
“One of the first things you learn in the NFL is before you win you have a keep from losing, and that was a game that they took advantage of whatever opportunity we gave to them,’’ Jets receiver Braxton Berrios, who once played for New England, said Monday. “They’re a well-coached team and they’re going to win those games when we make those mistakes. It comes back to us and doing what we have to do and executing our stuff. We have to play cleaner. They got us at home and our goal is to go and return the favor there.’’
If the Jets do, indeed, return the favor, with 7-3 Miami on its bye this week (and having lost to the Jets earlier this season), they’ll be guaranteed first place by dinner time Sunday.
Jets center Connor McGovern, in his sixth NFL season, said that would be a “special feeling.’’
“I haven’t had the opportunity in my career to ever be in that position, to be first in the division,’’ McGovern said Monday. “So, it’s an important game.’’
The last meeting?
“That one definitely did get away from us a bit,’’ McGovern said. “We know what mistakes were made and how to fix them. They’ve definitely been addressed. When we bring our best, we’re pretty hard to beat.’’
Time to show that to the Patriots.