New England Patriots: Sam Darnold still seeing ghosts as defense shines

Jamie Collins #58 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Jamie Collins #58 of the New England Patriots (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

The New England Patriots cruised to a relatively uncontested 24-6 victory over the Carolina Panthers this afternoon. The win pushes New England’s record to 5-4, firmly entrenching themselves in the AFC Wild Card race over the second half of the season. The Panthers on the other hand saw their record fall to 4-5, and they are quickly fading out of playoff contention.

The Panthers struggles were pretty much personified by quarterback Sam Darnold, who threw three interceptions in the game, two of them coming in the red zone. Darnold was famously quoted to be ”seeing ghosts” during a 2019 matchup against the Patriots, and it was more of the same this afternoon. Darnold was questionable to play for most of the week, and it might have been better for Carolina if he ended up being inactive instead.

While Darnold struggled mightily on the afternoon, a lot of credit is due for New England’s defense. Christian McCaffery had an OK game, but otherwise nobody on Carolina’s offense showed up. If it weren’t for two turnovers from Mac Jones, Carolina probably would have been shutout in this one. For the second week in a row, the defense was simply outstanding, and they will need to play at this level for the rest of the season if they intend on making the playoffs.

New England Patriots defense turning into a formidable unit

Admittedly, Carolina doesn’t exactly boast an overpowered offense, but they still have a lot of potential. McCaffery is the best running back in the game, and the wide receiver duo of D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson is among the most dangerous in the game. They started off the season strong, and Darnold looked like a new player after a couple of miserable years with the New York Jets, but in recent weeks, Darnold has reverted back to his old form.

In the NFL though, you can’t take anything for granted, and the New England Patriots surely didn’t this afternoon. They pressured Darnold all afternoon long, and it eventually caught up to him in the second half. Darnold rarely had receivers open down the field, and he was pretty much forced into throwing checkdowns to his running backs all day long. Darnold had 16 completions, and nine of them went to running backs.

When Darnold tried to throw the football down the field, it typically didn’t work out too well. Darnold threw three picks on the day, and all of them were on passing attempts that were further down the field.

His first interception to J.C. Jackson essentially ended the game. Matt Judon forced Darnold out of the pocket, and he tried to dump the ball off to his tight end Ian Thomas in the flat, but overthrew him, and ended up placing the ball right into Jackson’s hands. Jackson would proceed to go 88 yards the other way for a touchdown, giving the New England Patriots a 21-6 lead that felt pretty secure considering the state of Carolina’s offense.

Darnold would follow this up with another interception to Jamie Collins, although it was really just a good play by Collins rather than a mistake by Darnold. Collins jumped at the line of scrimmage looking to bat the ball away, but he instead ended up coming down with an interception instead.

Jackson would intercept Darnold again on the ensuing drive, this time in his own end zone. Darnold tried to find Moore on a corner route in the back of the end zone, but underthrew the pass into the waiting arms of Jackson instead. It capped off a superb performance from the secondary that really seems to be hitting their stride midway through the season.

As for the front seven, they don’t boast the standout numbers that the secondary does, but they did a great job at containing Carolina for most of they day. Judon would end up with the only sack on the day, but they were consistently pressuring Darnold on the afternoon, and it felt like he never really had a clean pocket.

They also did a good job at keeping a McCaffery in check for most of the afternoon. McCaffery admittedly just came off the injured reserve before this game, but he’s capable of breaking off a big play at any given moment. He only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, and when you combine that with the fact that Carolina was trailing for most of the afternoon, that basically forced the Panthers to rely on their inconsistent passing attack.

This all adds up to a very solid defense, one of the best in the league. Jackson and Judon are the two stars leading the unit, and that was certainly the case today. With secondary players like Jamie Collins stepping up too, it makes this defense ten times tougher to break down.

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This is a key development because it takes the pressure off of an offense that still struggles with consistency. Jones didn’t really have to do much today, but he lost a fumble and threw a pick early on, and had the defense not stepped up, those could have been bigger storylines in the aftermath of this game.

Aside from a two game stretch against the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans in which the defense struggled, this has looked like one of the top units in the entire league. They have slowed down some top tier offenses such as the Los Angeles Chargers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the defense can continue playing at the high level they have over the past few weeks, the New England Patriots could end up turning into a serious playoff contender.