New England Patriots

CHARLOTTE, NORTH Jets quarterback Zach Wilson hasn't thrown an interception in the past three games. (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

  • On his second play of last Sunday’s game at Denver, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson evaded the pass rush and took off running to his left. As Wilson scrambled, several offensive linemen drifted upfield.

    But as Wilson strode to the sideline, extending the ball in his right hand, he flipped it forward just before stepping out of bounds. Incomplete pass, the officials ruled; thereby making guard Nate Herbig an “ineligible” downfield. Penalty, New. York.

    Upon a subsequent slow-motion look at the play, it appeared Wilson wasn’t necessarily trying to throw the ball away. Instead, he seemed to be reaching out for an extra yard or two and, perhaps thinking he already crossed the sideline, was tossing it to a nearby official.

    Denver declined the penalty. With no foul, there was no harm in the larger scheme of an eventual 16-9 grind-it-out victory. Therefore, it was no big deal.

    Except that it was a flashback to frequent carelessness Wilson showed as a rookie in 2021 and has mostly avoided here in year two.

    Another occurred near the end of the opening quarter, as New York led, 7-6. Dropping back from his 29-yard line, Wilson was pressured into a spinning top, dizzyingly twirling his way out of the pocket. Pirouetting once, he rolled left; before pirouetting again.

    Holding the ball loosely, Wilson stumbled away from defenders and fell, using his hands to brace himself and regain balance. But as the ball came out of his right hand, Wilson rolled over and scooped it forward with his left hand.

    The Broncos’ D.J. Jones gathered the ball and chugged down the sideline toward a go-ahead score. Then the whistle sounded. Wilson had been ruled down by contact.

    A brush by Denver’s Dre’Mont Jones caused Wilson’s fall, officials judged. Denver challenged. On TV, as the bizarre play was reviewed, retired referee Gene Steratore concluded that only Wilson’s hands hit the grass before losing his grip. Therefore, Steratore explained, by rule the quarterback wasn’t down.

    But as active referee Bill Vinovich announced a short time later, the call on the field stood. Replays didn’t offer enough evidence to overturn it as Steratore suggested. Possession stayed with New York.

    Averting a disastrous lead-changing turnover, the Jets held on the rest of the way. Just as they’ve done in the last three of four straight victories — by holding onto the ball.

    Wilson’s mile-high afternoon ended victoriously without throwing a touchdown pass. In fact, he didn’t have one in any of the past three games, making him the first Jets quarterback to win three straight starts without a scoring toss since Joe Namath in 1968.

    At the same, Wilson didn’t throw an interception during that stretch. It’s a big reason why the Jets, 5-2 overall, are off to their best start since 2010. And a big reason why Wilson isn’t turning it over is a change in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s approach.

    He’s often taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands. After making his 2022 debut at Pittsburgh in Week 4, coming off a preseason knee injury and getting picked off twice in 36 attempts, Wilson’s since thrown 21, 18 and 26 passes in Weeks 5-7.

    New York is winning with a strong defense fielding stars at each level, from Quinnen Williams to C.J. Mosley to Sauce Gardner; a productive running game, though leading rusher Breece Hall tore his ACL two carries after a 62-yard touchdown dash at Denver; and an opportunistic special teams unit.

    The Jets own a plus-six turnover margin in their five wins, with 9 takeaways vs. three giveaways. Surely, Wilson deserves credit for avoiding the kind of afternoon he endured as a novice vs. New England their last meeting in the Meadowlands. In a 25-6 loss, he threw four interceptions.

    Patriots safety Adrian Phillips, who had one of the picks, sees a difference in Wilson as a sophomore. Joining Zolak & Bertrand on Thursday, Phillips said the Jets’ QB is freelancing far less this season.

    “I think that’s fair,” head coach Bill Belichick agreed, before offering related observations.

    Generally, Belichick pointed out, the Jets have played close games from out front. No longer constantly trying to catch up, like during their 4-13 finish to 2021, they enjoy a corresponding sense of ball security.

    “Playing from ahead that always plays favorably into ball security, the decision making and that kind of thing,” Belichick explained. “I think some of the stats last year were a little skewed with the come-from-behind, trying to get back in the game, pressing things, that type of thing. There’s been a lot less of that this year.

    “Part of that’s because there’s been less bad plays in the beginning of the game to get behind. But they play good defense. They don’t give up a lot of points. They move the ball offensively, have a lot of good skill players. They’ve played well in the kicking game.” Belichick continued by citing an overall advantage the Jets have enjoyed in “field position differential.”

    Punting in concert with Justin Harden and Brandin Echols, who Belichick describes as “outstanding gunners,” Braden Mann averages 43.4 net yards per boot. Place kicker Greg Zuerlein is 13-for-15 on field-goal tries, including a 57-yarder. And ex-Pat Braxton Berrios is one of the NFL’s top punt (12.9 average) and kick returners (25.9 average).

    “So all those things play into good complementary football, and the quarterback is certainly a part of it,” Belichick said. “All those things help him. He helps the other areas. Kicking game helps the defense.”

  • Special plays

    Braxton Berrios #10 of the New York Jets runs with the ball for a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium on December 19, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    Ex-Patriot Braxton Berrios is one of the NFL’s top punt and kickoff returners. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

    On the subject of the Jets’ kicking game, Brant Boyer is the longest-tenured of head coach Robert Saleh’s coordinators in New York. Retained by Saleh last year, Boyer is in his seventh season overseeing special teams for the Jets.

    In two games, in particular, he saw his group influence the outcome greatly. 

    At Cleveland, where New York won, 31-30, Mann prolonged a 75-yard scoring drive with a 17-yard pass completion to Jeff Smith on a fake punt. Later, between two scores in the final 90 seconds, the Jets recovered an on-sides kick.

    A month later in Green Bay, Quinnen Williams blocked Mason Crosby’s 47-yard field goal attempt to begin the first quarter and preserve a scoreless tie. Then, ahead 10-3 in the third quarter, Micheal Clemons blocked Pat O’Donnell’s punt and Will Parks returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.

  • Seeing double

    PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 18: Damien Harris #37 of the New England Patriots runs the ball during the second half in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium on September 18, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

    The Patriots’ close call at Pittsburgh was an exception to the general rule this season. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

    Through seven games, the Patriots have played two one-score contests. They beat Pittsburgh, 17-14, and lost in overtime at Green Bay, 27-24. Otherwise, their winning margins have been 29 and 23 points. Their final deficits in the other three losses were 13, 11 and 19 points.

    Widening differences have been a trend since last season.

    According to Stats Perform, 15 of New England’s 24 games since the start of 2021 were decided by double digits. Only Buffalo has played as many games settled by 10 points or more in that span.