By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s a muddy world out there on the internet streets, folks. The sharing of even the most innocuous of beliefs in the land of social media makes one liable to get blasted from all angles with pejoratives, insults and the nastiest of memes.
And so, as one might expect, whenever a football enthusiast has shared the non-controversial opinion that the 2019 Patriots defense is magnificently imposing, to a historic degree? Well, the responses are predictable: “They haven’t played anybody. They faced Luke Falk. Josh Allen stinks. Colt McCoy. I am a huge, soulless, joyless baby.”
I’m here, now, on the heels of the Patriots’ second shutout in seven games, to say this: Stop it.
Opponents be damned. Opposing quarterbacks be damned. You’ve never seen anything like this.
It’s time to accept the fact that despite the lower level of competition, this year’s Patriots defense is one of the best units you’ve ever seen in the NFL. And rather than spending your days concerned with the quarterbacks and opponents that the Patriots aren’t facing, it may just be time to pay attention to what’s taking place right in front of your own eyeballs on a weekly basis.
Because it’s extraordinary.
Sam Darnold serves as perhaps the greatest illustration of this reality. The second-year quarterback was riding high after his triumphant return from mononucleosis, as he threw for 338 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a home win a week ago against the Dallas Cowboys, a representative team in 2019 in the NFL. Darnold posted a 113.8 passer rating in that game, giving him and the Jets some confidence as they prepared to face the NFL’s top defense.
It took all of 20 minutes for Darnold to admit mid-game that he was completely spooked, completely befuddled, and completely out of answers when it came to dealing with the Patriots’ puzzling pass rush and/or finding a soft spot in the secondary.
“I’m seeing ghosts,” the mystified QB uttered aloud on the sideline.
Resultingly, Darnold threw four interceptions and gave the football away on a strip-sack that absolutely did not need to be a strip-sack. He went 11-for-32 for just 86 yards with no touchdowns.
His passer rating was 3.6.
That right there is the picture of the Patriots’ defense in 2019. Is Darnold an MVP candidate at this stage of his career? Of course not. But here’s how the No. 3 overall pick has fared against the Bills and Cowboys, compared to how he fared against the Patriots.
Darnold vs. the Bills and Cowboys
51-for-73 (69.9%), 531 yards, 7.3 yards per attempt
3 TDs, 1 INT, 97.6 passer rating
Darnold vs. the Patriots
11-for-32 (34.3%), 86 yards, 2.7 yards per attempt
0 TDs, 4 INTs, 3.6 passer rating
The same can be done with veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who likewise saw some ghouls and goblins when he face-planted against this Patriots defense back in Week 2.
Fitzpatrick vs. Ravens, Cowboys, Redskins and Bills
51-for-84 (60.7%), 628 yards, 7.5 yards per attempt
3 TDs, 2 INTs, 85.8 rating
Fitzpatrick vs. the Patriots
11-for-21 (52.4%), 89 yards, 4.2 yards per attempt
0 TDs, 3 INTs, 23.8 rating
You can throw Josh Allen and the Bills into the mix as well.
Allen vs. Jets, Giants, Bengals, Titans and Dolphins
105-for-161 (65.2%), 234 yards per game, 7.3 yards per attempt
7 TDs, 4 INTs, 73.0 rating
Allen vs. the Patriots
13-for-28, 153 yards, 5.5 yards per attempt
0 TDs, 3 INTs, 23.4 rating
That’s where and how this Patriots defense must be digested and understood. It’s not that they’re beating their opponents; they are systematically destroying each and every one of them.
As a team the Patriots have allowed just 48 points through seven games, a remarkably low total. But that includes three touchdowns allowed by the offense and special teams.
Strictly on defense, the Patriots have given up just 27 points through seven games.
That’s twenty-seven points allowed. Through 420 minutes of football.
One passing touchdown. Two rushing touchdowns. Two field goals. Twenty. Seven. Points.
Now, if we were to “pace” that out, it would be a waste of time. Obviously, with some better QBs and more functional offenses on the horizon, that level of dominance will not continue. That would be impossible.
Yet the place this Patriots team currently has in history should provide enough evidence to show that Bill Belichick’s has the personnel and the acumen to maintain a dominant level for as long as necessary this season.
As for that place in history, the ESPN broadcast summed it up fairly well when it showed that the Patriots’ plus-175 point differential through seven games is the best by any team since … the Buffalo All-Americans. In 1920.
Considering those fellas in Buffalo likely smoked butts on the sideline, considering the heaviest player might have been 170 pounds, and considering they were playing a nearly completely different sport, it’s fair to say that when it comes to the football league we know and love, there’s never been a team off to a better start than the 2019 Patriots.
(The 2007 Patriots, if you were curious, had a plus-159 point differential through seven weeks and allowed 17 points per game with no shutouts. The ’07 Patriots actually didn’t record any shutouts, and they only held opponents to single digits three times all year. The 2019 Patriots have two shutouts already, plus two more games where opponents were kept in the single digits.)
As for some of the most-revered defense of all times — your 2000 Ravens, your ’85 and ’86 Bears, your ’02 Bucs, your Steel Curtain Steelers, etc. — here is where those teams rank in terms of total points allowed through seven games. (Again, this includes 21 points allowed by the Patriots’ offense and special teams unit.)
POINTS ALLOWED THROUGH SEVEN GAMES
1. 2019 Patriots, 48
2. 2000 Ravens, 75
3. 2002 Buccaneers, 76
4. 1978 Steelers, 77
5. 1978 Broncos, 86
6. 1986 Bears, 90
7. 2000 Titans, 97
8. 1985 Bears, 105
Those seven other teams are the only teams since 1978 (when the league switched to a 16-game schedule) to allow fewer than 200 total points in an entire season.
The 2000 Ravens own the record for fewest points allowed in a single season, with 165. Through seven games, their defense did post three shutouts but also allowed 75 points while forcing 22 turnovers.
The defense of the 2019 Patriots has allowed just 27 points through seven games — roughly one-third of the points allowed by the 2000 Ravens defense — while forcing an identical 22 turnovers.
That is to say, in terms of points allowed, through seven games the 2019 Patriots are thrice as dominant as the greatest defense of all time.
Say all you want about quality of competition, but to be so much better than every other team in history through nearly half of a season speaks much louder.
There’s also this little matter: For as much as the skeptics focus on the Patriots’ competition, it seems as though the world has forgotten that it is not supposed to be possible to play defense at this level in the current era of the NFL.
When the Ravens allowed 165 points in the 2000 season, they did it at a time when teams scored an average of roughly 20 points per game. In 2019, that average is up nearly two points per game.
But the raw data hardly tells this story. In an era where you can’t lay a finger on a receiver past five yards and where you can’t so much as breathe heavily on a quarterback, the Patriots have seemingly cracked the system by building a suffocating defense on all three levels. Those days were thought to have gone the way of the dinosaur, but as Belichick tends to do, the rules have clearly been rewritten.
For further evidence of the Patriots not fitting in to the modern era, look at the NFL’s leaders in interceptions. The Patriots sit atop the list with 18. The Panthers rank second … with nine.
You could also look at opponents’ passer rating. The Patriots lead the league in that category, with opposing QBs posting a collective 35.6 passer rating against them. The 49ers rank second, through their number — 64.6 — is nearly double that of the Patriots.
Next weekend, the Patriots will host second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield and the Browns. If Cleveland struggles, well, then they will say, simply, “It’s the Browns.” If the Patriots then march into Baltimore and shut down second-year QB Lamar Jackson and the second-ranked Ravens offense? “Just a bad night for Baltimore.”
That response is likely to continue right on through December — Mahomes was hobbled and rusty, the Texans ALWAYS lose to the Patriots, etc., etc., etc. At some point, maybe just maybe, folks will start to recognize what they’re actually seeing instead of lamenting what they’re not.