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Zach Wilson's meltdown vs. Patriots raises questions about long-term future as Jets' franchise QB

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New England Patriots came into Sunday's game with a quarterback problem. The New York Jets exited with one. 

With a chance to break the stranglehold the Patriots have over this rivalry, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson -- the quarterback who was not involved in a quarterback controversy entering the game -- choked it away with a three-interception performance that sent the Jets skidding to a 22-17 loss and raised questions about his long-term future as the team's franchise quarterback.

This is not the same old Jets, despite losing the 13th consecutive game to the Patriots, a streak dating back to 2016. It's not even the same Jets from last year -- that team got blown out by the Patriots in a game that players and coaches talked openly last week about hoping to avenge. These Jets have a defense that largely stifled the Patriots, limiting them to five field goals and a lone touchdown. And until rookie running back Breece Hall and offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker suffered season-ending injuries last week, this was a team that could run the ball so effectively, it could shield Wilson's game from further scrutiny. The Jets were winning in spite of Wilson, not because of him, but they were winning nonetheless, so the single touchdown pass Wilson threw during the four-game winning streak since his return from injury could be looked at as an inconsequential blip, explained away by the Jets as Wilson doing what he was asked.

But with Hall out and newly acquired James Robinson not yet fully up to speed, the Jets ran the ball just 15 times for 51 yards, and that exposed an alarming reality: Wilson is struggling, susceptible to the kind of poor decision making you might expect of a rookie -- two of the interceptions were bad decisions -- and still incapable of the kind of consistent play that is required when a game is placed in his hands, as this game was with 41 pass attempts. It shouldn't be again for a while.

"He's got to play better," said coach Robert Saleh. "We've got to find ways to help him."

For starters, the Jets have to get back to what made them 5-3 and in second place in the AFC East. They have to figure out how to run the ball, to get their rushers the ball in space. And they have to do it quickly, because the Jets are still a viable playoff contender. But with a game against the Buffalo Bills next week, and a rematch with the Patriots after the Week 10 bye, the Jets can't afford to let Wilson's growing pains -- if that is still what this is, which Saleh seemed to suggest -- undermine the season.

Asked how the Jets can balance waiting for Wilson to grow with the urgency of the possibilities of this season, Saleh paused for a few moments before answering.

"We've just got to rally around him," Saleh said. "As coaches, we've got to figure out how to make it not necessarily simpler, but help him continue to progress and evolve. He's still a young man. Playing quarterback in this league is not easy. Collectively, we've got to do better for him. Obviously, he's got to be able to do what he did the last four weeks in terms of doing the simple stuff and not putting too much pressure on yourself to do more than you need to."

At the start of the summer, Saleh and Jets players talked about how Wilson was taking more of a leadership role, about how he was more vocal in the huddle. But then he was hurt, and he missed the start of the season. His play since his return has been mostly mixed. In his first game back, he led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to help the Jets to a come-from-behind victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The hope was that the sophomore leap the Jets anticipated had come to fruition. In the three weeks prior to Sunday, Wilson wasn't the problem, but he also wasn't the solution. He threw no interceptions in the previous three games, but also did not throw a touchdown pass. But Sunday's meltdown -- which included one interception when Wilson was trying to throw the ball away, and another when he was pressing to try to make a play -- came in the biggest game of the Jets' season so far, against a hated rival, with a chance to make a leap not just in the standings, but in the psychological warfare with the Patriots.

Wilson admitted Sunday that it is frustrating for him to get flushed from the pocket -- where he also made some of his best passes of the day -- and to constantly have to throw it away. It gets old, he said, to not see anything open in those situations. But he said this type of game would not hurt the team's confidence and, at times, he seemed nearly defiant. He was asked about his trajectory and the second-year leap and he responded that he didn't care about stats.

"Regardless of what it looks like, I feel like each game I'm learning and getting better," Wilson said. "There's always plays I'm going to want back. Always things that happen and you wonder, 'why did I just do that?' It's part of football."

It is. But it is a part that the Jets cannot afford right now. There were certainly other things that contributed to this loss, most glaringly a roughing the passer penalty on defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers that negated an 84-yard interception return for a touchdown on what was a terrible throw by Mac Jones. Saleh guessed that overall the penalty led to a 10-point swing, maybe 17 points. The pass protection for Wilson was shaky and he faced relentless pressure, especially in the second half.

But Wilson was the second overall pick last year because the Jets believed he was talented enough to handle adversity and elevate the Jets past it, to be the solution to the problems. Instead, Wilson was the problem, and it is one that there might not be an easy answer for. The Jets have time before they have to decide if Wilson is the long-term solution at quarterback and, ironically, the Patriots might still have to make that decision about Jones, too.

More pressing for the Jets is whether Wilson is still the solution right now, with the season on the line and a playoff berth entirely within reach.

"He can't lose his confidence," Saleh said. "We've got to figure out a way to help him. At the same time, there's self-inflicted wounds. It wasn't anything they did. Football is hard enough. It's when you make mistakes that are self-inflicted that makes it impossible. He's going to figure it out."

These are not the same old Jets. To avoid the same old results, he must.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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