DENVER (AP)The spice that Sean Payton injected into the Jets-Broncos matchup by trashing Nathaniel Hackett last summer has mostly dissipated with both teams awash in bigger concerns than the flap that raised hackles in New Jersey and eyebrows everywhere else.
Still recovering from losing Aaron Rodgers minutes into his debut in gotham green, the Jets (1-3) have lost three in a row.
They’re encouraged, however, by Zach Wilson’s performance last weekend when he did a spot-on impression of Patrick Mahomes before the Chiefs escaped the Meadowlands with a 23-20 squeaker.
Payton has been plagued by many of the same problems for which he excoriated Hackett, such as game management and communication issues, and he lost his first three games with Denver, including a 50-point blowout at Miami, before winning his first game last week.
After Denver rallied from a three-touchdown deficit to hand the Bears their 14th consecutive loss, Payton promised not to sugarcoat the ugly win but did say the team could celebrate “then get ready to go next week and we can dive into the whole Jets fiasco stuff.”
Yet, he deflected a day later when asked if he’d reached out to Hackett or Jets coach Robert Saleh to apologize as he said he would. Payton insisted he sufficiently addressed the matter two days after his critical comments were published, calling them a mistake and saying he regretted saying what he did.
Saleh, too, demurred when asked this week if Payton had reached out – “I will leave that between he and I” – and besides, he added, it’s ancient history as far as he’s concerned.
“In football terms, that was 15 years ago, 20. It’s more like 25 now,” Saleh said. “But it’s long gone. We are a different football team than we were in training camp, so are they. We are just going out to play a football game. The reality is that coaches don’t play, it’s the players.”
Hackett, who was fired after going 4-11 in Denver, said he never heard from Payton. Asked if he would be open to chatting with him Sunday, Hackett said, “Let’s put it this way, everyone: This game is about those guys out on that field. This game is not about me.”
And no, Hackett insisted, he doesn’t take any satisfaction in knowing that the problems he dealt with last season persist in Denver under his successor.
“I haven’t really watched their offense,” Hackett said.
Had he paid attention, he’d see that Russell Wilson is having a much better season. He already has nine touchdown throws, seven shy of what he had all of last season.
But the O-line is plagued by pre-snap penalties and Wilson often has to burn timeouts just as he did in 2022.
Safety Justin Simmons embraced ex-Broncos coach Vic Fangio, now coordinating the Dolphins’ defense, in Miami last month and he said he plans to do the same if he sees Hackett after this game.
“I have nothing but amazing things to say about him,” Simmons said. “I loved him as my coach. It’s unfortunate it didn’t work out. It was tough throughout the year he was here but for me it was still a lot of fun and I have nothing but respect for him and how he takes care of his business.”
Saleh spent two years in Seattle with Russell Wilson and four years scheming against him in San Francisco. He said he sees a vintage Russell Wilson his season.
“He’s lost weight from last year. He looks good. He’s moving around really well. He’s creating off schedule, like I’m used to seeing,” Saleh said. “His arm is alive. He’s throwing the ball accurately. They’re doing a really nice job. They’re moving the ball.”
ZACH ON TRACK
Zach Wilson silenced his naysayers – including Hall of Famer Joe Namath – for at least one week when he had perhaps the best performance of his career against K.C.
With fans clamoring for newly signed backup Trevor Siemian, Wilson completed a career-best 28 passes, threw for two TDs and ran for a 2-point conversion to go with a career-high 105.2 passer rating.
Next he’ll face a struggling Broncos defense with a chance to show last week was no fluke.
“I’m proud of him,” center Connor McGovern said. “Like everybody says – Coach Saleh, everybody in the locker room – we trust him. … We all have his back.”
BACK TO THE SCENE
Jets running back Breece Hall (left ACL) and right tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker (torn triceps) will play their first game in Denver since they both suffered season-ending injuries against the Broncos last season.
“I think last year was just a very unfortunate turn of events,” said Vera-Tucker. “I really don’t think about that at all. I’m just going to go out there and play my game and pray I come out healthy this time.”
Hall leads the Jets with 210 yards rushing and Saleh said this week that Hall no longer has any snap limits.
OLB Nik Bonitto will get his second start for the Broncos. He had a 2½-sack performance last week highlighted by a fourth-quarter strip-sack of Justin Fields that Jonathon Cooper returned for the tying TD after supplanting veteran Randy Gregory in the starting lineup.
The Broncos traded Gregory to San Francisco on Friday after he had just three sacks and missed 11 of 21 games since signing his $70 million, five-year free agent deal in 2022.
AP Pro Football Writer Dennis Waszak Jr. contributed to this report.
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