The 2021 NFL Draft class has gone exceedingly well for a few teams, but horrifically bad for most of those franchises that selected a quarterback in the first round. That includes the New York Jets, who drafted Zach Wilson second overall but benched him for the second time in two years this week after another bad outing. Well, if not for the Los Angeles Rams having one of their worst performances as a team in 2020, the Jets would have had Trevor Lawrence instead, the Jaguars could have picked Wilson, and that one game between the two teams may have also been responsible for how Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Rodgers relocated in the seasons that followed.
Who knew there could be so much riding on an AFC-NFC December game between the Rams and Jets?
December 20, 2020
Jets (0-13) vs Rams (9-4)
Weeks before they would fire head coach Adam Gase, the winless Jets went to an empty SoFi Stadium to play a Rams team still contending for the NFC West title. L.A. was 17.5-point favorites and a loss would all but guarantee New York the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, though the Jacksonville Jaguars were hot on their tails at 1-12.
In fact, the Jaguars won their season opener in 2020, but lost their last 15 games in a row and of course also fired their head coach, Doug Marrone.
A quarterback matchup of Sam Darnold against Jared Goff, both quarterbacks would be traded in a matter of less than two months. Goff’s offense went three-and-out on the opening series and punted the ball to the Jets for a drive that started at their own 26. L.A. allowed New York to go three-of-three on third downs on the series, which ended in an 18-yard touchdown pass from Darnold to Ty Johnson.
Jets 7, Rams 0.
Little did we know then that the game would soon spin out of control for the Rams.
Following a holding penalty on Joe Noteboom, the Rams went three-and-out on their second series, punting again. After holding the Jets, L.A. picked up their first first down of the game on an 11-yard pass to Robert Woods, but would soon be punting for the third time in basically the first quarter. (Right at start of second quarter.)
However, Johnny Hekker had his punt blocked, only the third time that has happened to him in his entire career.
blocked punt by the Jets! Hassell blocks Hekker. My goodness. What's happening here? #Jets— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) December 20, 2020
Hekker hasn’t had a punt blocked since.
The Rams held the Jets to a field goal, but trailed 10-0.
L.A. was held to yet another three-and-out on their next drive, but caught a break when former Ram John Franklin-Myers was called for a neutral zone infraction on the punt. However, the opportunity was a red herring as Goff was intercepted by Bryce Hall on the very next play, leading to another field goal by the Jets. They were now up 13-0 and the Rams had barely moved the football.
The two teams traded punts until finally the Rams got on the board with a 45-yard Matt Gay field goal on the final play of the half to cut the lead to 13-3.
However, the Jets would get the ball to start the second half and they drove 72 yards down the field, chopping up yards with Sam Darnold hitting a lot of players who are nowhere near the New York roster anymore, like Denzel Mims and Breshad Perriman. The drive ended with a fourth-and-1 touchdown run by Frank Gore, in what would be the second-to-last game of his career.
That was also the final touchdown of his career.
The Rams now trailed 20-3 at home to a team that had not won a single game and L.A. was trying to beat the Seahawks for the NFC West title.
Goff broke through with a 44-yard pass to Tyler Higbee on the next play and shortly thereafter scored on a 15-yard touchdown to Robert Woods.
Cutting the lead to 10 points would be short-lived, as the Rams let the Jets drive all the way to their three-yard line for another field goal by Sam Ficken to make it 23-10.
Keep in mind that the Jets ranked 32nd in points, 32nd in yards, 32nd in first downs, 31st in passing yards, 31st in yards per attempt, 28th in passing touchdowns, 31st in rushing touchdowns, and were the worst offense in the NFL. They scored 23 points on Brandon Staley’s defense—the number one defense in the NFL that year—by the end of the third quarter.
The Rams cut the lead to 23-17 on the next drive and still had over 13:00 minutes remaining though.
The Jets punted the ball back to L.A. with 12:00 remaining and then held the Rams to a field goal to cut the lead to 23-20. The Rams held the Jets again, getting the ball back with 5:33 left in the game and only needing three points. However, an illegal block penalty on Higbee negated a first down run by Akers that would have given L.A. a first and 10 from the Jets 33 yard line.
Basically, the Rams had the field goal range they needed but a penalty set them back to the 43. Goff found Cooper Kupp for six yards and put them back at the 37, but incomplete passes on third and fourth down forced a turnover on downs with 3:54 remaining and two timeouts left.
Sean McVay opted to not attempt a 54-yard field goal for Gay even though he’s turned out to have one of the best legs in the NFL beyond 50 yards. Gay is 21-of-23 on 50+ attempts in the past three seasons.
The Rams had the Jets on third-and-6 with 2:17 remaining and only needed to make one stop to get the ball back with a two minute warning ahead. In one of the final plays of his New York career, and one of the last plays of his legendary career, Darnold hit Gore for a 6-yard gain to seal the win for the Jets.
Rams not being able to stop Frank Gore and Sam Darnold is a disgrace— Adem Arac (@AdemAracNotTV2) December 20, 2020
After the game, the Jets were 1-13 and the Jaguars were 1-13, putting them in a virtual tie for the first pick in the 2021 draft. But at that point, New York’s tougher schedule meant that they would lose a tiebreaker to the Jacksonville if both teams had the same record at the end of the season.
They did not end up having the same record, but they were that close to it if not for the Rams allowing one of the biggest regular season upsets of all-time.
As if both teams couldn’t get over what just happened, the Jets actually won again and beat another playoff team, upsetting the eventual 11-5 Browns with a 23-16 victory. You have to think that New York was still living on the high of beating the Rams and once again got off to a 20-3 lead by the start of the second half.
Meanwhile, the once-contending for the division Rams went from 9-4 with a game against the winless Jets to 9-6 following losses to New York and Seattle. The potential for winning the division if they had beaten the Jets and Seahawks slipped away and McVay basically benched Goff for John Wolford by the end of the season. However, Wolford was injured in the wild card round against Seattle and that led to Goff coming back in with a hurt wrist, leading the Rams to a win over the Seahawks.
But a few weeks later, the entire landscape of the NFL would be changed.
If the Rams had won the division at 12-4, would they have kept Goff? L.A. could have potentially hosted a divisional round game instead of going on the road to top-seeded Green Bay that year and may have gone deeper in the postseason. It ended up being the 11-5 Bucs in the Super Bowl and winning it with Tom Brady.
If the Rams do keep Goff, then they never trade for Matthew Stafford and he ends up getting dealt elsewhere.
We’ll never know for sure to what degree the draft would have changed if the Rams had won that game against the Jets like they should have, but it’s very possible that they would have had the top pick instead of Jacksonville. While a lot of people were hyped on Wilson, there’s no question that Lawrence was a lock for the number one pick no matter which team was picking there.
Boomer Esiason thinks it's time for the Jets to release Zach Wilson. pic.twitter.com/vNNvjWZpVm— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 20, 2023
Wilson was also pretty well locked into the number two position, so it’s safe to assume that if they had flip flopped, Lawrence would be on the Jets and Wilson would have gone to the Jaguars.
While Lawrence has had his ups and downs, he’s an NFL-quality starter and Wilson doesn’t appear to have a career ahead of him. He’s just been that bad and consistently so for three seasons. If Lawrence was in New York, that likely changes the course for other quarterbacks as well.
There’s no Rodgers-to-the-Jets if they had picked Trevor Lawrence.
Does he retire? Does he go to the Jaguars? Does he stay on the Packers? You could even argue that if the Rams had not traded for Stafford in 2021, they might have tried to trade for Rodgers in 2023. Of all the teams that would do it, clearly the Rams belong in that group.
Since that win over the Rams, the Jets have added a new head coach, traded Darnold, drafted Wilson, traded for Rodgers, and fired offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur in favor of Nathaniel Hackett. New York is potentially considering more changes after this season based on how poorly the season has gone, even if they couldn’t plan for Rodgers to tear his Achilles after four plays.
Since that loss to the Jets, the Rams have traded for Stafford, hired two new offensive coordinators, including one being Mike LaFleur. The team is not thought to be mulling any major changes after this season, but could be in the market for another quarterback to insure against Stafford missing games or retiring in the near future, which could be the recently-signed Carson Wentz.
Alternate Universe NFL?
Trevor Lawrence, Jets? Zach Wilson, Jaguars? Aaron Rodgers, Rams? Matthew Stafford, 49ers?
We’ll never know for sure. But we’ll always know that you can’t dismiss a meaningless game in December as necessarily being “meaningless”.