- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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Discussing Thursday night's showdown against the New England Patriots, Holmes told the rookie quarterback to manage the game, use the clock wisely, and don't put the defense in bad situations.
What Holmes was really saying was this: Don't be Mark Sanchez.
For the first time since Nov. 13, 2008, when Brett Favre was at his gunslinging best and stole a game from Bill Belichick, the New York Jets will face the Patriots with a quarterback not named Sanchez. The Jets were 3-6 against their AFC East nemesis in the Sanchez era, with his turnovers looming large in many of those defeats.
Now it's another fresh start, another quarterback to face Tom Brady. They've gone from Vinny Testaverde to Chad Pennington to Kellen Clemens to Favre to Sanchez to Smith, and Brady is still standing, flicking away the challengers.
There's absolutely no way of knowing if Smith will have more staying power than his predecessors, but this game will be a fantastic test. He gets to face a Belichick-coached defense ... on the road ... in the Patriots' home opener ... in a short week. In terms of degree of difficulty, this is about as tough as it gets for an inexperienced quarterback.
Last Sunday was a warm-up act. The kid held up reasonably well against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, benefiting from Lavonte David's greatest shove of all, a personal foul in the final seconds. Now it gets serious for Smith, who ventures into a stadium where Sanchez delivered one shining moment (the 2010 divisional playoffs) and a whole lot of heartbreak.
"I embrace the challenge," Smith said. "I know Coach Belichick is one of the masterminds in this league. [I have] a ton of respect for him and his team. I expect everything, every single look. I'll appreciate it because it'll help me out in the future. ... I'm going to prepare myself for pretty much anything because that's what you can expect coming from that team."
This is a house-money game for the Jets and, even though this may sound like heresy, it's possible to have a "good" loss if Smith plays well. This season is all about finding out if he's The Future, and it would be a tremendous step if he responds to the moment.
Smith's fellow rookie, Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, didn't implode against the Patriots. But he had the benefit of playing at home after a full week of preparation -- longer, really. Smith had one full practice, and that's a critical factor.
Practice reps are huge for a young quarterback because he needs to be exposed to the defensive looks he's likely to see in the game. Smith said he went home after Sunday's win and immediately started studying tape of the Patriots. That's fine, but it can't replace actual field work.
"This is the schedule we were handed," Smith said.
His No. 1 priority is to protect the football, something the Jets rarely do when facing the Patriots. In the last four meetings -- all losses -- the Jets' turnover margin is minus-9, including the infamous Butt Fumble. The Patriots, frankly, don't scare anyone with their defensive prowess, but they have an uncanny ability to force turnovers -- a streak of 28 consecutive games with a takeaway.
The Patriots aren't a heavy blitzing team -- Manuel was under pressure only six times -- but they can rattle a quarterback with clever pass coverages. In last season's Thanksgiving debacle, they baited Sanchez with a "trap" coverage, resulting in an interception. It wasn't entirely Sanchez's fault; there are plenty of seasoned quarterbacks who would've made the same throw.
Belichick may decide to test Smith's patience, deploying a bend-but-don't-break defense -- figuring the rookie will end up breaking. The Patriots often took that approach with Sanchez. As a former Patriots assistant once said, "If he has the ball in his hands long enough, he's bound to screw up."
Smith committed two turnovers against the Bucs, both his fault. You can beat an undisciplined team like the Bucs with two turnovers, but it would be hard to take down the Patriots on the road.
"He ran well, he threw well, he made good decisions, moved the team at critical points in the game," Belichick said of Smith's NFL debut. "That's the most important thing -- he made the plays he needed to make to win."
The Patriots have to be concerned with Smith's ability to improvise outside the pocket. He's no Colin Kaepernick, but he can escape the pocket if it breaks down, as he did on the game-deciding play against the Bucs.
"He can create some plays on his own," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, "That adds an extra element to their system."
Smith was 11 years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl, in February 2002, and grew up watching Brady, among others, wondering what it would be like to face him one day. That day is here. If Smith gets caught up in the hype, he'll fall apart on a national stage.
Memo to Smith: Listen to Holmes. Don't be Tone deaf.