Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 33-0 shellacking of the Jets, as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick strengthen their stranglehold on the AFC by moving to 7-0 …
STARTED WITH A SILENCER
A first quarter that saw the Patriots outscore the Jets by a count of 17-0, outgain the Jets by a margin of 141-14, and outclass the Jets by a gap wide enough to evoke memories of the Butt Fumble featured plenty to like from New England’s perspective. But perhaps most impressive of it all was the game’s opening possession.
That series was a 16-play, 78-yard, eight-minute-and-47-second tour de force during which it appeared as though the Patriots came out of an 11-day break determined to answer all the criticisms that have been levied at their offense.
Entering as the NFL’s fifth-worst in yards per rush attempt, and up against the league’s third-best defense in that category, the Pats set an early tone by gaining 20 yards on their first three carries and moving quickly to midfield.
When it began, the Pats were no better than 15th league-wide on third down, then extended the drive four times in four chances, with conversions of seven, 10, five and two yards.
It’s been said that Brady shies from young receivers, but undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers snagged one of those conversions by settling into a nice spot in the New York zone for a nine-yard pickup when he needed seven.
The tight end position has been mostly a nonfactor since the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, but, in his return to New England, the venerable veteran Ben Watson went low to haul in one of those third-down throws, then cleared out the left side for the touchdown that capped the series.
That brought the Pats into the red zone, where they began the night ranked 21st in football, but this time had no trouble taking advantage just three plays later.
And, amid concerns about Sony Michel’s ability to capitalize on short-yardage running situations, the second-year back got the corner and scored with a three-yard scamper on third and two.
Just like that — with the rarely questioned brilliance of Brady and Julian Edelman mixed into the recipe, as well — it was 7-0. The Pats were just getting started. And the critics were quiet.
At least for the moment.
THE TURNOVER RATE REMAINS RIDICULOUS
By securing their second shutout of the season, and keeping the opposing offense out of the end zone for the fifth time in eight game (dating back to the Super Bowl), the Patriots’ defense will enter Week 8 having allowed 48 points. On average, that’s less than the value of a single touchdown plus extra point. And when combined with an offense that has reached 30-plus points in six of seven efforts this season, leaves the club’s scoring margin at plus-175 for the season. By comparison, last year’s team finished plus-111, and six of the eight Belichick teams to finish plus-155 or better went on to win the AFC.
As much as the Pats do well defensively, what’s underneath it all is this deep unit’s ability to make plays on the ball. With six takeaways against the Jets, they’re already up to 22 for the season, which according to Pro Football Reference makes them one of nine teams to force that many turnovers in its first seven games. The 2012 Bears are the only team to do it since 2006, and no team this century has forced more than 23 to this point in the campaign.
That total doesn’t even count the safety that produced a couple of points on Monday, but it does include the four interceptions that brought the season total to 18. That matches their total from all of last year, and with a couple more (hello, Baker Mayfield) their interception count could well be knocking on the top five of full seasons in the Belichick era before this one is halfway over.
The level of competition is set to rise soon. There’s no doubt about that, regardless of what version of Mayfield or Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes may be forthcoming. But this defense is playing at a level where it shouldn’t fear any quarterback.
Instead, every quarterback should fear them.
Two plays after that dominant opening drive, New England’s defense did what it does: It forced a turnover, and got the ball back to Brady’s offense with excellent field position.
However, the offense proceeded to do what it has done too often: It squandered said opportunity, settling for a field goal.
The Patriots took over at the Jets’ 12 — and wound up losing four yards before settling for a 34-yard field goal. That series marked the sixth time the Pats had taken over with the ball already inside the enemy 40, and to that point those chances had produced just a single touchdown. Further, when the parameters were extended to include drives the Patriots started anywhere on the plus side of the 50, New England had reached the end zone just twice in 11 tries.
So it was encouraging — and Pats fans should hope it was a harbinger of things to come — when the attack punched it in after Kyle Van Noy’s fumble recovery set them up at the Jets’ 38. This time they started fast, with an 11-yard Michel run followed two plays later by a 23-yard Meyers catch. And even though James White’s touchdown run was negated by a suspect block in the back call against Edelman, the unit persevered.
It took six plays from the 11, one of which reset the downs when Meyers was held in the end zone, and two of which gained nothing as Michel ran behind linebacker Elandon Roberts. But eventually, again on third down, Michel pounded it to paydirt.
With that, the Pats scored a touchdown on a short field for the second straight contest, and for the second time in three chances after failing on six straight before that. It’s an encouraging step in the right direction.
NOT A GREAT NIGHT FOR GORDON OR BENNETT
The Patriots took the field Monday night without two of their bigger-name talents — and didn’t miss Josh Gordon or Michael Bennett in the least.
In fact, without Gordon the Pats’ quick-twitch passing game looked as good as it has in a while. Per usual, it was keyed by Edelman and White, but with Gordon’s knee injury creating an opportunity Meyers had the best and most encouraging game of his young career. He caught five balls on five targets after catching all four passes thrown to him last week, and the yardage actually dipped a bit (from 54 to 43) compared to the last one.
However, that doesn’t factor in the penalty he drew in the end zone, nor the penalty he provoked by burning his coverage with a double move that left the cornerback no choice other than to grab Meyers as he blew by. It also doesn’t account for the way Brady looked his way in got-to-have-it situations, including a couple of third downs, one near the goal line.
Phillip Dorsett, recovered from a hamstring injury, was his typical brand of dependability, too. He hauled in a 26-yard TD pass at the end line before dragging his feet magnificently for another catch along the sideline.
Defensively, Bennett was suspended for the game because of conduct detrimental to the team, though the havoc wreaked on Sam Darnold via the blitz is proof positive that the Pats didn’t need the former Pro Bowler to get pressure on the quarterback. John Simon came away with a strip sack, but just as impactful were the series of pursuits that prompted New York’s other four turnovers.
The combination of Bennett’s shrinking snap count and the continued performance of this defense has been making the case for weeks that the lineman is more of a role player than a pivotal piece. And when the output looks like it did Monday with him absent, it raises the question of whether the same is true of Gordon and his uneven production.
Both guys may be big names — but at this point it’s not certain that either needs to be a big part of what the Pats can be moving forward.
THE JETS HAVE TO BE CONCERNED
There’s no doubt that the 5-1 Bills are the second-best team in the AFC East this season, but long-term it’s typically thought to be the Jets who are best-positioned to benefit when the Belichick and Brady era finally comes to an end. That’s a belief based on Darnold, and the supposition that New York has its franchise quarterback already in place.
Monday night might not have changed that perception altogether — but it had to have shaken some of the brass down at MetLife Stadium.
Darnold finished 11 for 32, accumulating just 86 yards while throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble. He also let a snap sail over his hands for a safety. And still there’s a case to be made that the quantitative analysis wasn’t as troubling as the qualitative from a Jets’ perspective.
As bad as the numbers were, worse might’ve been the way Darnold repeatedly reacted to New England’s blitz. He couldn’t read it, couldn’t get to his hot routes, couldn’t even get his footing right to make a decent throw. Instead he just heaved it carelessly, throwing a few right to Patriots defenders and floating most of the rest way too high for his receivers. ESPN’s microphones heard him say that he was “seeing ghosts” — but viewers didn’t need the audio or the admission. It was obvious almost every time he dropped back.
After Terrence Brooks’s third-quarter pick, which was the fourth and final, Darnold’s offense had managed nine first downs. Four of those had come by way of penalty, while only two were the product of a passing play.
Jets head coach Adam Gase has enough of a track record against the Patriots (with the Broncos and Dolphins) to suggest he has a sense of how to attack a Belichick defense. But even the best-laid offensive plans will go awry if the quarterback is spooked, and from the first time Darnold dropped back to throw — when both McCourty twins were gesturing as though they knew exactly what was going to happen, then Devin grabbed his fifth interception of the season — it looked as though New England’s coach had taken residence in the head of New York’s young signal caller.
And now there’s got to be doubts about when, or whether, Darnold will be able to evict him. From his thought process, or his penthouse at the top of the division.