FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Joe McKnight is feeling much better about himself nowadays, all because he's finally making some meaningful contributions.

"My confidence level is up," the rookie running back said. "It's better than it was at the beginning, but I still don't know if they trust me or not. I can't read their mind, but I'm just going to keep working at it so they can show me they trust me.

"I'm just being patient, waiting until they give me a chance again. If they are thinking they can't trust me, I just want to let them know I'm not going to let them down anymore."

McKnight was active again for last night's AFC East battle with the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, marking the fourth straight game he's suited up and fifth time all season - perhaps a sign he could be finally regaining the coaching staff's faith.

McKnight's fumbling ways, tentativeness running the ball and lack of professional maturity, among other things, caused Rex Ryan to keep him inactive at the outset of the season, forcing McKnight to work to get them to believe in him again.

"Like Rex has said, I think he earned the right to be in the doghouse and I think he's earned the right to be out of it," general manager Mike Tannenbaum said. "So I think for the first time in his life, football was kind of taken away from him by being inactive, and he earned his right on the practice field.

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"So Joe is a guy that started slowly, but he's really come on."

Particularly of late in his modest role as a flyer on kickoffs and punt returns. McKnight made two noticeable plays in the 26-14 Thanksgiving win over the Bengals, the first when he clobbered punt returner Quan Cosby.

The fourth-round pick also had a subtle hand in Andre Caldwell's muff of Steve Weatherford's punt in the third quarter. McKnight sped downfield and blew past Caldwell so quickly that the ball glanced off an unaware Caldwell and was recovered by the Jets' James Ihedigbo. That play set up Mark Sanchez's 13-yard touchdown toss to Santonio Holmes for a 17-7 Jets lead.

"I just put it in my head that if you want to contribute, you've just got to contribute in any way possible," said McKnight, whose only previous involvement in special teams at any level was as a punt returner. "On special teams or on offense or defense, just try to contribute."

"Joe, like a lot of young guys, wasn't involved at the beginning," special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said. "But Ben [Kotwica] and I didn't lose sight of Joe. We really worked him in practice. You don't want to go through what he went through these last couple of months. He worked hard.

"To his credit, he started to mature and started to develop. So his opportunity came along when someone got hurt. The last couple of weeks, he's gotten better and better and better. Last week, he played exceptionally well."

Guard Brandon Moore, whose locker sits next to McKnight's, is liking what he's seeing lately out of the USC product.

"The guy is going to be OK," Moore said. "In practice, he's working hard on the scout team. He's going to get his break. Right now, they are asking him to play special teams. He went down and made a big play last Thursday, so he's doing what the coaches are asking of him and he's getting better."

He'd better improve, and soon, given Leon Washington's continued penchant for making big plays. Washington, shipped to Seattle during the April draft for fifth- and seventh-round picks, has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns for the Seahawks, and nearly had a punt return for a touchdown Sunday.

So in Jets fans' eyes, Washington and McKnight will forever be linked.

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"Leon has done a lot of great things for us and I'm sure he'll have a great career in the NFL," Tannenbaum said. "But when we make those decisions, it's based on a lot of variables. In that case, we wouldn't have traded Leon if we didn't have Joe. But with that said, we also had LaDainian [Tomlinson] and Shonn [Greene], and it also gave us the opportunity to get John Conner - that's who we used for the [fifth-round] pick.

"So we feel like that trade over the next few years will play itself out. But we are really happy to have Joe and John."