EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Halloween came 10 days early for the New York Jets. Once again, New England's defense, led by its linebacking corps that calls itself "The Boogeymen," looking frighteningly good. More on that in a moment.
First, offensively, the Patriots have struggled this season to put long, sustained drives together at the start of games. Not so this Monday night against the Jets, however.
Yet, on the opening drive of Monday night's game, New England's offense looked much like it did during last season's playoffs. A mixture of short runs and short passes allowed the Patriots to march 78 methodical yards down the field, chewing up nearly nine minutes of play clock. RB Sony Michel finished off the scoring drive by taking a pitch from QB Tom Brady and waltzing three yards into the Jets' end zone.
"Especially when you're on the road in an environment like this one, against a division opponent… Starting fast is always what you want to do – first drive, first quarter, you want to establish that tone early," remarked tight end Benjamin Watson. "I feel like we did that fairly well. I also feel like, personally, collectively, we can do a lot of things better."
The ensuing Jets possession didn't last long, either. On their second play, a well-timed blitz by LB Jamie Collins forced Jets QB Sam Darnold to throw an errant pass over the head of his intended receiver and into the waiting arms of safety Devin McCourty, who took the INT down to the New York 12-yard line. Brady and the O lost yardage on consecutive plays, however, and had to settle for a 34-yard Mike Nugent field goal to go up 10-0.
The Patriots' suffocating defense quickly forced a New York punt and the offense went back to work.
Facing a 4th-and-6 from the Jets' 35, Brady found Watson, making his debut in his second (technically third) stint with New England. Two plays later, Brady floated a gorgeous 26-yard pass into the back of the end zone to a tightly covered WR Phillip Dorsett, returning to the lineup after missing most of the past two games with a hamstring injury. Nugent tacked on the PAT, and as the rapid first quarter came to a close, New England held a commanding 17-0 lead.
"I didn't really have too much space," Dorsett recalled to reporters afterward. "Tom made a great throw. You can't throw that ball any better than that."
Pass rusher John Simon then blitzed Darnold and forced him to fumble as he brought the QB to the turf. LB Kyle Van Noy recovered the loose ball, got up, and rumbled nearly half the field for what looked like a touchdown, but upon review, his foot was touched by a Jets player, nullifying the score. However, New England's offense had the ball at the Jets' 38.
It took the O nine plays – and several cracks from the 1-yard line – by Michel eventually bulldozed his way over the goal line for his second TD run of the night. Nugent upped the tally to 24-0 with his extra point.
"We're just trying to play Patriot football, play as a team, play complementary," Van Noy observed.
"We just try to play each and every down… get the ball back to our offense. We're not looking at the clock," CB Stephon Gilmore explained. "It's not just one person… Trusting each other and just playing aggressive. We stuck with our game plan."
"It's just trust," echoed CB Jonathan Jones. "The front dominates. You turn on the film and you see them dominate. In the back end, we get a chance to make plays off it."
A pair of J.C. Jackson penalties in the secondary allowed the Jets to move the ball into Patriots territory midway through the second quarter. Then a Danny Shelton roughing-the-passer penalty put the ball in New England's red zone for the first time in the game.
However, the pass rush forced Darnold into another poor throw which was easily picked off by safety Duron Harmon at the 1-yard line. New England kept its shutout in tact at intermission.
The start of the third looked a lot like the first half for Darnold. Pressure from a Devin McCourty safety blitz caused Darnold to throw yet another errant pass that found its way into the arms of Gilmore, giving the Patriots the ball at their own 38.
Although New England's O couldn't capitalize on that turnover, the Patriots got another one on the very next series when a shotgun snap sailed over Darnold's head into the end zone. He batted the ball out of the paint for an intentional two-point safety.
At one point during the game, TV cameras and microphones overheard Darnold exclaiming that he was "seeing ghosts" on the field. Boogeymen, indeed.
"I felt like we did a good job of creating different looks, from the top down," added Van Noy. "Clearly, [Darnold] was struggling to figure out what we were doing."
Brady gave the ball back to New York a couple plays thereafter, though. Hit while he was throwing a pass downfield, Brady's toss sailed for an easy interception by the Jets. Another J.C. Jackson pass interference flag gave New York possession in the red zone.
But – you guessed it – pass rush pressure by rookie Chase Winovich hurried Darnold, who threw his fourth pick, this time to safety Terrence Brooks in the end zone for a touchback. Michel would add a third touchdown run in the early fourth quarter, with Nugent making it a 33-0 advantage.
"We've got to give a lot of credit to our coaches, too," Brooks pointed out. "They slave hours in there to give us a perfect game plan."
Only a month ago at Gillette, New England raced out to a 30-0 lead against the Jets before giving up two meaningless touchdowns at the game's end. Many analysts predicted that this game would be more competitive because of Darnold, who missed the earlier game with an illness. In fact, tonight in the Meadowlands proved to be an even more lopsided affair.
Other than the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots haven't faced an opponent this season with a winning record, but that will soon change over the second half of the regular season. Many players acknowledged as much just minutes after their thrashing of the Jets, which brings their perfect record to 7-0.
"Anytime you come in and get a shutout, you can't ask for much more," Jones declared. "We're a force, and we've got to continue to get better. But we're establishing ourselves."
"It feels good against a division opponent, a rival. It felt really good to go 7-0," Dorsett concluded, "but we've got a lot of work to do. We know that. It doesn't get any easier."