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The Patriots Defense Is Doing Things We’ve Never Seen Before

Forget about the quality of competition—New England’s seven-game stretch is frightening for any era. Just ask Sam Darnold.

New England Patriots v New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

“I’m seeing ghosts,” Sam Darnold said on the sideline after his second interception against New England on Monday night. His Jets were definitely being haunted: The Patriots linebackers have nicknamed themselves the Boogeymen, and they, along with the rest of the Patriots defense, turned Monday Night Football into The Blair Witch Project during their 33-0 shutout against the Jets. Unlike a horror movie, the haunting didn’t require any buildup. On the Jets’ second snap of the game Darnold realized the Patriots were sending an all-out blitz. He screamed to his offensive line to change their protection. They did not hear him (classic horror movie). Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins ran into the backfield unblocked. Darnold panicked and made a dumb decision (also classic horror movie), floating a ball that was picked off by Pats safety Devin McCourty.

It got worse from there. Darnold went on to throw three more interceptions, lose a fumble, and take an intentional safety to avoid a defensive touchdown. On the bright side, there were four merciful Jets drives where they went three-and-out. Darnold finished with 11 completions on 32 passes (34.4 percent) for 86 yards (2.7 yards per attempt) and five turnovers. To put 86 passing yards in perspective, Darnold had a 92-yard touchdown pass last week against Dallas. His passer rating was 3.7—the lowest any quarterback has registered against a Bill Belichick defense. That includes the 59-0 shutout against Tennessee in 2009 when Titans quarterback Kerry Collins had negative-7 passing yards.

John Madden once said that if you score more points than the other team, chances are you will win the game. Bill Belichick has taken that wisdom to heart. Monday’s 33-point win pushed the Patriots point differential to 175 points in seven games for an average margin of victory of 25 points. That is the largest margin of victory through seven games since the Buffalo All-Americans in 1920. For those who think the Patriots’ early schedule is a major factor in their early-season success, know that the 1920 Buffalo All-Americans also played some suspect competition by playing West Buffalo, All Buffalo, McKeesport, Toledo, Rochester, All Tonawanda, and Columbus to start their season. Also take note that Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which adjusts for era and opponent quality, ranks the 2019 Patriots as the best defense and third-best team through seven games in their database, which goes back to 1986. We are beyond calling this Patriots team the best team in the league or Bill Belichick’s best defense ever. We need to begin assessing where this team places in history, though Belichick is uninterested in those questions.

The Patriots have allowed a league-low 6.9 points per game, becoming just one of three teams to allow less than a touchdown per game through seven games, alongside the 1946 Browns and 1977 Falcons. If the Patriots doubled that number, they would still be ranked the second-best defense by points per game in 2019. They’ve allowed 48 total points this year, but even that impossibly low number is misleading because of defensive and special teams scores against them. Their offense has given up the same number of touchdowns (three) as their defense. As Chase Stuart of Football Perspective pointed out, if we ignore field goals and extra points and only count the plays the Patriots defense has been on the field, they have outscored opposing offenses this season 20-18.

Their defense is breaking fantasy football and was the 12th-highest-scoring “player” entering the week, including more fantasy points in half-PPR scoring than every non-quarterback except Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler. As PFF’s Scott Barrett noted, the defense’s fantasy point total would already be the no. 2 for the 2018 season, despite playing only seven games so far. New England’s 18 interceptions are already as many as they had all last season. It’s also as many as the Saints, Lions, Texans, Raiders, Bengals, Falcons, Cardinals, and Dolphins have combined.

Most impressive of all might be the work the defense is doing on third down. The Patriots have allowed 12 third-down conversions this year, the fewest through seven weeks since the stat started being tracked in 1991. Their opposing third-down conversion percentage is 14.3 percent (12-for-84). That number is by far the best mark on record. The gap between theirs and the next best mark, Minnesota’s last year (23.4 percent), is 9.1 percentage points, or the same difference between no. 2 and no. 75 (San Diego in 2006). Put another way, the Patriots defense wins on third down 85.7 percent of the time, higher than Klay Thompson’s career free throw percentage of 84.8 percent.

The massive caveat to all of this is the quality of New England’s opponents. The Patriots wrecked the Steelers in Week 1 when Ben Roethlisberger may have been playing through an elbow injury, eviscerated the hapless Dolphins in Week 2, obliterated the Luke Falk–led Jets in Foxborough in Week 3, scraped by Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills (not All-Americans) in Week 4, crushed Washington in Week 5, sapped rookie Daniel Jones’s Giants on a short week in Week 6, and just atomized the Jets in Week 7. Five of those opponents have combined to go 6-25. The sixth, Buffalo, is 5-1 and would have beaten New England if it had merely thrown two inexplicable interceptions instead of four. The point spread does show the Patriots have been favored by a historic amount. Not only have they outscored their opponents by more than any other team in seven games, but they have the largest combined point spread (-83) in seven games, surpassing the 2013 Broncos and 2000 Rams, and have gone 5-2 against the spread so far this year.

But to toss aside the Patriots’ start because they’ve played bad teams is silly. The point of football is to score more points than the other team, and New England has outscored its opponents this season more than any other team has done in a century. Clichés are clichés for a reason, and the Patriots can play only the teams on their schedule. They’ve submitted the best start to any season, which should drown out the complaints about their level of competition (and the complaints that they beat up the AFC East also shouldn’t apply—they beat up on the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets with a similar percentage as they do everyone else).

It’s also important to note that the Pats have been 7-0 twice before: 2007 and 2015, and neither of those teams won the Super Bowl. As Tom Brady said after Thursday’s game, going 7-0 doesn’t guarantee a team anything. New England does have a harder slate coming up. Their next three opponents are Cleveland, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, who will all be coming off of their bye week. After that New England gets the Cowboys, Texans, and Chiefs, each of whom look like they could win their division this year. Those teams are formidable, but also have inexperienced quarterbacks. The Patriots have had the good fortune of facing four quarterbacks in their first or second year, and beating up on them is Bill Belichick’s specialty. He is undefeated against first- or second-year quarterbacks in his past 20 games, and when he takes on Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson in his next two games, he will have run through the entire first round of the 2018 draft class. Dak Prescott is a fourth-year player, while Mahomes and Watson are each in their third season (and that assumes Mahomes will be healthy enough to play in Week 14). The only quarterbacks the Patriots are slated to face this year who’ve been in the league longer than four years are Ryan Fitzpatrick and Andy Dalton, who play for the worst two teams in the league. New England’s defensive game-planning is amplified in large part because Belichick, the best defensive game-planner ever, is going against a young group of quarterbacks.

Their defensive dominance has also come because Belichick is taking a heavier hand than he has in years. New England has gone on this historic stretch without former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, who left after the 2017 season, or top defensive assistant Brian Flores, who became head coach of the Dolphins this year. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano abruptly left the team in March, and Belichick decided to take over the defense himself. The result is the greatest coach of all time’s masterpiece.

“A lot of times you get three or four different coaches, sometimes things can get misconstrued,” said longtime Patriots defender Dont’a Hightower, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama and has spent his entire NFL career with New England. “Now it’s Bill running the meeting [saying], ‘This is what I want, this is how we’re going to do it.’”

Belichick made it clear what he wants in his postgame press conference: to begin preparing for the Cleveland Browns.

“You know, you’re only as good as your last game,” Belichick said. “So we’ll have to see what we do next week.”

If that’s true, this team is even better than we’ve heard. Sam Darnold was seeing ghosts on Monday, but all of us are witnessing something.