EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Patriots’ defense arrived as boogeymen.
They left as ghosts.
Together, they will live in Sam Darnold’s nightmares forever.
There was the Jets quarterback on the sideline Monday night, after throwing the second of his four interceptions late in the second quarter of an embarrassing 33-0 loss to the Patriots. The pick was bad enough, chucked as it was off a wobbly back foot into a group of players all wearing the wrong uniform, snared out of the air at the 1-yard line by safety Duron Harmon, nary a Jet in sight. The blank face Darnold wore on the bench afterward wasn’t so great either; no words required to convey the utter devastation it tried to mask.
But then Darnold said something anyway, and thanks to the in-game microphone the Jets quarterback was wearing as part of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast, the football world heard him.
Now it won’t ever let him forget it.
“Seeing ghosts,” Darnold mumbled.
It’s a phrase that will live in infamy, one that threatens to follow him forever.
“I think for me I just got to, when I talk to the coaches, be straight up, and for me, I just got to see the field a lot better. That’s kind of what that means,” Darnold said later in the Jets’ locker room. “It was a rough day out there, a rough night out there. Obviously, I’ve got to be better, learn from the mistakes. But we will get better.”
It can’t get much worse. Darnold finished with a 3.6 passer rating, the result of 11 completions across 32 attempts along with the four interceptions and another sack/fumble turnover, his utter inability to deal with the Patriots’ regular blitz package blighting his night from the start (he was intercepted on his very first throw). Ugly as that number is, it won’t be remembered the way “seeing ghosts” will.
At just 22 years old and in only his second year in the league, there’s no way Darnold wants something like this to stick. Coming across as one part shock and one part fear, one part admission and one part confession, the onetime third overall pick in the draft looked like an overwhelmed football neophyte unprepared to face the veteran opponent in his path. Though he has the rest of his career to try to change the narrative, he just let the rest of the football world know he can be rattled. The Patriots gave them the blueprint to do it.
“He said he felt like it was one of the worst games he ever played,” teammate Le’Veon Bell said. “I said there’s always been games like that where you don’t play well. Now you know, you can only play better from here on out. You can’t play no worse than you played tonight. I think he learned a lot from tonight. Sometimes that’s what you have with a young player.”
These lessons seem to happen more often against the Patriots than anyone else. This is what they do. The franchise has made a living ruining the lives of opposing quarterbacks, feasting on young, inexperienced ones or veteran, bad ones alike. Yet no team has felt their wrath more over the years than the Jets.
Has Mark Sanchez ever recovered from his infamous “butt fumble” on Thanksgiving night seven years ago? The Butt Fumble has its own Wikipedia page, filled with all the details of that 49-19 humiliation on this same MetLife Stadium turf, an indelible reminder of the moment Sanchez collided with the rear end of his offensive lineman Brandon Moore, fumbled the ball, and saw the Patriots turn it into the first of three touchdowns across the next 52 seconds of game time.
Tom Brady and Co. didn’t reach such ridiculous scoring heights Monday, but after staking themselves to a 24-0 halftime lead, after watching Darnold disintegrate as they soared, there was no better comparison to be found.
Unless, of course, you turn to the Internet, where Darnold was getting roasted by ghosts. He was cast as the Sixth Sense kid who saw dead people, joined with every Halloween emoji available. One creative person included the third symptom of mononucleosis, the condition that kept Darnold sidelined earlier this season including during the Week 3 Jets loss in Foxborough, as “seeing ghosts.”
But really, he was seeing Patriots. And they were scarier. They were coming at him with such ferocity, such regularity, such unceasing intent to ruin him that they were everywhere. Four interceptions, two in the red zone. Another turnover on a sack and fumble. He had no answer. Neither did his head coach, Adam Gase, who admitted afterward he’d considered pulling Darnold out of mercy, knowing how long-lasting the effects of a night like this can be.
“That thought will always pop in your head, especially with a young quarterback,” Gase said. “I kept thinking, ‘Let’s keep this going, let’s put together a good drive, build off of something for the next game’ . . . I kept thinking we’d get a drive going. It never happened.”
Not against this defense. While Darnold spent a week talking his offense up as potentially “unstoppable,” while the Jets rolled toward this game giddily riding the momentum of last weekend’s unexpected upset of the Cowboys, while the entirety of the NFL wondered if the undefeated Patriots might finally be facing a test worthy of their top-ranked defense against a quarterback just hitting his stride, the Patriots just got ready.
With 11 days since last they played, this defense, led by a linebacker corps that had already coined the nickname “Boogeymen” and anchored by a secondary that was just gifted the nickname “Ghosts,” took the field and promptly reminded the Jets who is boss.
There was Bill Belichick early in the third quarter, his defense pitching a shutout, yelling instructions into the huddle as vociferously as if they were protecting a 1-point lead in a playoff game. Of course, they weren’t. They’d already destroyed Darnold, and were well on their way to destroying the Jets. Just as they’d done to so many young quarterbacks over so many football years. Seven games and seven wins now for Belichick, whose influence on this year’s defense has been both obvious and indelible.
Together, they are scaring teams more than ever.