FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Facing a three-score deficit in a game last season, New York Jets quarterback Mike White started playing "hero ball," as he called it -- and the result wasn't pretty. He threw interceptions on three straight possessions in the third quarter, finishing with four picks in a 45-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
A few days later, he got benched.
White was in a similar situation last week against the Minnesota Vikings, but he stayed patient amid a second-half rally, saving his aggressive throws for the right moment. The best example was a tight-window laser to wide receiver Corey Davis on a fourth-and-10 that went for 31 yards. On the previous play, White took a shot to the ribs that left him gasping for air. His comeback bid fell short, 27-22, but he showed his poise and toughness in defeat.
A few days later, he got praised by his coach.
"Excuse my language: To have the balls to rip that thing the way he did, that was pretty cool," Robert Saleh said of White's clutch pass to Davis.
White gets his long-awaited rematch against the first-place Bills (9-3) on Sunday at Highmark Stadium (1 p.m. ET, CBS), where the AFC East rivals meet in a game with serious playoff implications.
So much has changed since last Nov. 14. The biggest difference: White was an injury replacement last year, keeping the seat warm until Zach Wilson got healthy. As it turned out, White didn't get a chance to be the bridge to Wilson, as he was replaced by Joe Flacco.
This time, White doesn't have to worry about a quick hook. Though Saleh hasn't declared his intentions beyond Sunday, the smart money says White will continue to start for as long as the Jets (7-5) stay in postseason contention -- meaning he should be able to survive one off day, maybe two.
"What he’s proving is that he can do it," said Saleh, who benched Wilson two weeks ago in favor of White. "He proved it a little last year. He’s proving it again this year, and it’s really exciting for him to get this moment and get this opportunity to attack it and show that he’s capable."
White is a more-mature, more-seasoned quarterback than he was in last season's Buffalo debacle. Even in defeat last week, he showed the ability to thrive outside his comfort zone, throwing 31 times in the second half without an interception until the final play -- a fourth-down desperation pass. He also had an interception in the first half, but that was on a deflection.
He hasn't been on the job very long, but he seems at ease in the position. He might be the most popular player in the locker room. On Thursday, there was a scene that captured everything.
Toward the end of his media session, White was interrupted by wide receiver Elijah Moore and, later, running back Michael Carter. Posing as reporters, they asked questions to White, who played along. Moore asked about the receiving corps (naturally). A smiling White listed every receiver, even those on the practice squad, holding Moore's name until the very end -- pretending to almost forget about him.
Moore, so unhappy earlier in the season that he requested a trade, walked away, laughing. The entire scene was loose and fun. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the locker room, Wilson sat alone at his locker, checking his phone.
White, who will be a free agent, said he doesn't think about becoming the Jets' long-term quarterback. For now, his mind is on the Bills. The Jets beat them last month, 20-17, Wilson's final win before his demotion.
Asked if he sees himself as somebody's franchise quarterback, White gave the politically correct answer.
"I do have the confidence in myself, knowing I can go out there and help move the ball and help score points," said White, who has passed for 684 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions so far this season. "Whether that's here ... that's the furthest thing from my mind right now. This [game] preparation is too hard. If you start to let your mind wander, you get in a bad place."
The immediate goal is to solve Buffalo's defense -- ranked fourth in scoring defense (17.4 points per game) -- which caused his worst day as a professional.
When a reporter brought up the game from last season, he cracked, "What happened a year ago?" He turned serious, saying he learned a lot from the experience. It still bothers him, he admitted. But he showed growth last week against the Vikings, not falling into the same old trap while facing a large deficit.
"It'll always be part of my development as a quarterback," White said. "I don't want it to beat me twice."