Jets drop Zach Wilson’s debut to Sam Darnold and Panthers

Sam Darnold Panthers Jets
Sep 12, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) scores a touchdown in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The first step of the New York Jets’ work in progress began on the wrong foot as Gang Green dropped its season opener 19-14 to the Carolina Panthers and an old friend, Sam Darnold.

The former Jets’ No. 3 draft choice from 2018 outdueled New York’s No. 3 overall pick this year, Zach Wilson, who had an up-and-down professional debut while playing against a team’s No. 1 defense for the first time in his career.

Wilson completed 20-of-37 attempts for 258 yards with two touchdowns — both to Corey Davis — and an interception while running for his life behind a sieve-like offensive line that yielded six sacks.

The Jets trailed by as much as 16-0 before a second-half comeback attempt fell just short. Wilson hit Davis for their second scoring connection of the afternoon with 1:56 remaining in the game to cut it to within four, but a failed two-point conversion ensured that they needed a touchdown to win the game. Those hopes evaporated quickly when their onside kick to get the ball back failed, allowing Carolina to close things out.

Wilson initially flailed in the fire after being thrown from the proverbial frying pan, getting sacked by an unblocked Brian Burns after two offensive penalties dismantled the Jets’ first drive of the season.

A three-and-out on the second drive saw the Jets gain just four yards on their first nine offensive plays. Further insult to injury was added when punter Braden Mann — arguably the team’s MVP last year — was injured while punting it away.

Under constant pressure, it continued getting worse for Wilson and the Jets when the rookie was picked off after their defense forced a fumble of its own. Entering Panthers territory for the first time midway through the second, Wilson was picked off by linebacker Shaq Thompson — who was one of two Carolina defenders to change their uniform numbers to single digits just an hour before kick-off — over the middle.

It led to a Panthers field goal to open the scoring and they only continued to make the Jets pay for their mistakes.

After stuffing the Jets on a 4th-&-1 attempt from the Carolina 42-yard-line, Darnold hooked up with another former Jet in wide receiver Robby Anderson for a 57-yard bomb down the middle of the field. It put the Panthers up nine after a missed extra point — and reminded Gang Green fans what might have been had Jet ineptitude not derailed former plans.

Darnold continued to pour on Jets misery during the Panthers’ two-minute drill before halftime, completing 5-of-5 passes for 56 yards and topping it off with a five-yard touchdown rush up the middle to put the Panthers up 16-0 with 35 seconds left.

The Panthers’ new franchise quarterback completed 17-of-22 attempts in the first half alone, setting a new career-high of 234 yards. Meanwhile, McCaffery was the main benefactor as he posted 120 total yards in the opening 30 minutes of action.

McCaffery, who is fully healthy after being limited to just three games last year, put up 98 rushing yards and 89 receiving yards on Sunday.

The Jets’ defense upped the pressure on Darnold, slowing down their former teammate long enough for New York to get back to within a possession.

Wilson showed a glimpse of it all coming together, completing 4-of-4 passes for 57 yards that was capped off by a scrambling 22-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Davis, who was also making his debut with the Jets, in the back-right corner of the end zone.

But even a touchdown came with a problem as second-year offensive lineman Mekhi Becton went down with a knee injury and was carted off the field. An emotional Becton was an early indication that the injury was serious.

The Panthers restored a two-possession advantage with a field goal to answer the Jets’ touchdown, which proved to be just enough as Darnold was limited to just 45 passing yards in the second half.

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