Don’t underestimate these three teams on the New York Jets’ 2023 schedule
When looking at an NFL team’s schedule prior to the start of the season, people love picking out the “easy games” and “hard games” based on what happened in the past. But doing this ignores the fact that things change drastically in the NFL every year. Some of the perceived easy games will be difficult, and some of the perceived hard games will be easy. It’s foolhardy to assume we know how difficult each game will be.
The main reason for this is the natural turnover that occurs across the league each season. For instance, in 2022, the league-average difference in a team’s win total compared to 2021 was 3.0 wins. The point stands when you go back to previous years. From 2020 to 2021, the league-average change in win total was 2.4 wins, and from 2019 to 2020, it was 2.8.
We should be expecting the average NFL team to see a change of 2-3 wins compared to the previous year – either up or down. This means an 8-win team from 2022 should be expected to win anywhere from 5 to 11 games in 2023.
The range of outcomes for the average NFL team is much too wide for us to assume we know who will be good and who will be bad in the upcoming season. Save for long-established juggernauts (the only team that currently falls under this umbrella is the Kansas City Chiefs), we cannot say with certainty whether any team will be good or bad.
That brings us to this question: Which teams on the New York Jets‘ 2023 schedule could end up being better than expected?
Here are three Jets opponents that I believe have a feasible chance of appearing much more intimidating on gameday than they do today.
Atlanta Falcons (Week 13, @ NYJ)
Many Jets fans are looking at the second half of the team’s schedule as the “soft” stretch. The commonly held opinion is that the team might have an up-and-down start before shredding through the month of December.
However, there are a couple of teams in this December stretch that stand out to me as underestimated dark horses, starting with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons went 7-10 in 2022, but they are expected to improve in 2023. Most sportsbooks have their over-under set at 8.5 wins. For a few reasons, I could easily see Atlanta going over that mark and having an above-.500 season.
Atlanta quietly had a solid offensive season in 2022. They ranked 13th in offensive DVOA despite mediocre play from the quarterback position and poor support from a defense that ranked 30th in DVOA. Arthur Smith’s squad was able to accomplish this on the strength of an elite run game, which ranked third in DVOA.
The Falcons are anchored by a top-notch offensive line, one that does not get much recognition across the NFL. In 2022, Atlanta had the league’s best run-blocking grade at PFF to go with the eighth-best pass-blocking grade. They should be able to sustain this success since four of the five starters are set to return. At left guard, which was the unit’s weakest link, the Falcons are hoping to improve by inserting second-round pick Matthew Bergeron.
In addition, the Falcons used a first-round pick on Texas running back Bijan Robinson, adding even more juice to an already-electric backfield. Robinson joins a running back unit that includes Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Caleb Huntley, who all averaged at least 4.8 yards per carry for Atlanta last season.
As Jets fans know, the Jets’ defense is better equipped to defend the pass than the run. A run-first team with an elite offensive line and an elite backfield could cause problems for them. The Jets faced two of the top four teams in rushing DVOA last season, and they lost both of them (#2 Baltimore and #4 Cincinnati) – although they did defeat the fifth-ranked Packers and the sixth-ranked Browns (the latter needed a miracle; and nonetheless, they gave up a season-high 30 points).
Wide receiver Drake London, a first-round pick in 2022, is poised for an improved second season after a promising rookie year. And of course, the big X-factor is quarterback Desmond Ridder, who seeks a Year 2 breakout after starting the final four games of his rookie year.
The third-round pick from Cincinnati led the Falcons to a 2-2 finish. His overall upside as a passer is questionable, but Ridder threw zero interceptions over 115 pass attempts to close the year (though he did lose 2 fumbles), flashing ball security skills that serve as a perfect complement to the run-first, ball-control offense that Atlanta wants to establish. The Falcons also found ways to get Ridder involved in the run game.
Things are looking good offensively. Atlanta’s defense is what held the team back in 2022.
The front office made a strong push in free agency to turn things around on the defensive side of the football, signing FS Jessie Bates, DT David Onyemata, DE Calais Campbell, DE Bud Dupree, and CB Mike Hughes among other veterans. Even if the Falcons’ offense does not improve and is equally as good as it was last year, they can add a couple of wins if the defense simply jumps to around a league-average level – and the pieces are in place to do just that.
I don’t think a 9-10 win season is unfeasible for Atlanta. Their Week 13 trip to the Meadowlands could be a battle of two teams in the wild card hunt.
Houston Texans (Week 14, @ NYJ)
Houston is another team in the Jets’ perceived “soft” December slate that I could envision being better than expected. While I do not think they are a potential playoff contender like Atlanta, I feel as if there is a good chance they will not be the complete pushover they were over the last three seasons.
The Texans were extremely active in free agency, signing a litany of veterans to mid-tier contracts in an effort to raise the floor of a franchise that is a league-worst 11-38-1 since the turn of the decade. Houston’s haul includes WR Robert Woods, FS Jimmie Ward, DT Sheldon Rankins, TE Dalton Schultz, CB Shaquill Griffin, LB Denzel Perryman, LB Cory Littleton, DE Jacob Martin, RB Devin Singletary, and QB Case Keenum.
No, none of the guys listed above will make any NFL coach lose sleep. Still, they make the Texans a more competent football team than their past three iterations. Those teams were mostly made up of inexperienced young players and looked dysfunctional due to the lack of proven veteran talent. Having all of these veterans in place can help facilitate the development of Houston’s burgeoning young core, which features four top-45 picks from the 2022 draft and two top-three picks from the 2023 draft.
Houston is still a year away from playoff contention and at least two years away from legitimate title contention, but they may have finally climbed out of the NFL’s basement after three years of futility. I don’t think the Jets will be looking at a freebie win from a 1-11 Texans team when Week 14 rolls around. It feels more likely that the Jets will be facing a 5-7 Texans team that is fully capable of swiping a victory on any given Sunday.
Denver Broncos (Week 5, @ DEN)
The Jets’ six-game pre-bye slate is considered a gauntlet. Of those games, the Week 5 trip to Denver is widely viewed as either the easiest or second-easiest matchup (after the Week 2 home game against New England).
Yes, the Broncos were a disaster last season, and yes, the Jets defeated them on the road with Zach Wilson despite losing two of their best players in the first half. But Denver is a strong candidate for a bounce-back season.
Russell Wilson was brutal last year. No question. Still, he’s Russell Wilson. After a decade of elite play, should we completely write him off due to just one bad season? At 34 years old, there is a chance he has more good years left in the tank. Maybe his elite years are behind him, but he can still be a good starter.
Perhaps Wilson is cooked and the Broncos are screwed. That is certainly possible. Nevertheless, we cannot rule out the possibility that Wilson rebounds in 2023.
Sean Payton’s arrival has me believing the Broncos will at least be a competent offensive team this season. While Nathaniel Hackett could not translate his success as an offensive coordinator to the head coach role, Payton has already proven over a decade-plus that he can build elite offenses on a consistent basis as the head coach.
Payton led the Saints to a top-10 ranking in offensive yards per game in each of his first 13 seasons with the team. They fell to 12th in 2020 and 28th in 2021, his final season. He finished with 14 top-half finishes in 15 years.
Payton has also proven he can mend a talented quarterback after a down season. In 2006, Payton joined forces with Drew Brees in New Orleans after Brees endured a rough 2005 season in San Diego. Brees had made his first Pro Bowl in 2004, but in 2005, Brees took a massive step back. His passer rating declined by 15.6 points and the Chargers missed the playoffs following a 12-4 season. After joining Payton in New Orleans, Brees ranked second in MVP voting in his very first season.
This is a completely different situation, but it’s still a promising accomplishment for Payton to carry with him to Denver.
Also, keep in mind that the Jets didn’t even face Wilson last year. They faced Brett Rypien. Wilson, for all his faults, was still far better than Rypien – Wilson had an 84.4 passer rating to Rypien’s 63.8. And the Jets barely squeaked by Rypien. A healthy Wilson might have beaten the Jets on that day (although a Jets team with four quarters of Breece Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker probably would have easily beaten either quarterback).
It’s also worth noting that Denver suffered from the league’s worst injury luck last season, according to Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost (AGL) metric. The Broncos led the NFL with 148.6 AGL. They are due for better health in 2023.
Injuries hurt the Broncos particularly badly on offense. Promising second-year running back Javonte Williams played four games, All-Pro left tackle Garett Bolles played five, and starting center Lloyd Cushenberry played eight. Wide receiver Tim Patrick missed the entire season. These losses played a large role in Denver’s futility on offense. If their injury luck normalizes, that alone will make them a much better team regardless of how things progress with Wilson and Payton.
The Broncos have one of the widest ranges of outcomes in the NFL this year. Their 2022 disaster gives them a very low floor. They could easily have a similar season this year; the team does not look much different on paper. But Wilson’s career track record coupled with the arrival of Payton gives Denver a chance to forge a major turnaround. A double-digit-win season is not outside the realm of possibilities.
We should know a good deal about who the Broncos are by the time Week 5 rolls around. If they are the same mess they were last year, it won’t take long to see; last year’s team revealed its issues in the first few games and never fixed them. And if they are a brand-new team, it seems likely they will have shown clear improvement prior to the fifth game.
There you have it: three teams on the Jets’ 2023 schedule that I would refrain from writing off as easy wins. How about the other side of the coin, though?
Soon, I’ll return with an article looking at the reverse question: Which opponents on the Jets’ 2023 schedule could be easier than expected?
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