FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – It doesn't take much to send a New England Patriots fan into a tizzy these days. Use the words "Patriots" and "defense" in the same sentence and the response is some combination of fear and anxiety that seems straight out of a Hitchcock film. But here's something for fans to consider as a salve from the burning pain New England's defense has caused at times this year.
It doesn't really matter – at least according to recent history.
Seriously, the fact that the Patriots allowed 342 points in the regular season may not be a good thing. But when it comes to winning a Super Bowl, particularly in the past five years, it really doesn't mean much.
From 2006 to 2010, teams that allowed more than 300 points during the regular season were 3-2 in the Super Bowl. One of the losses was a head-to-head matchup two years ago between the New Orleans Saints (341 points allowed) and Indianapolis Colts (307). The other loss was by the Arizona Cardinals, who suffered a last-minute defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. The Cardinals made the title game after allowing a staggering 426 points in the regular season (the most ever allowed by a Super Bowl team).
"What we're talking about is matchups, not about whether a team can simply stop everybody all the time," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said in training camp. "You need to have flexibility on defense because of all the things teams are trying to do on offense."
The NFL of today is not so much about the consistency of a defense, but simply whether it's good enough at the right time. In the case of the Patriots, the defense was simply awful at the beginning of the season, was pretty good for a brief spell in the middle of the campaign, and then finished the year with a weird alternation of porous first-half play followed by strong second-half performances. Yardage-wise, the Patriots were the league's second-most generous defense.
All along, the offense has been good enough to cover for the defensive shortcomings.
"Definitely, we know they're going to score," said linebacker Jerod Mayo, whose Patriots take on the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's AFC championship game. "Our job is just to go out there and either get the ball or stop their offense from scoring points. We know our offense is going to go out there and do a great job each and every week and they have carried us at points during the season. That's what a team is all about. Whether the score is 2-0 or 100-99, it doesn't matter to us."
It may not matter, but it is odd to watch. For instance, the Patriots allowed 74 points in the first half of the final four games of the regular season, but then corrected errors and allowed a combined 21 in the second half of those contests. In the playoffs on Saturday against Denver, the defense continued the trend, in a sense.
Denver was one of the four teams the Patriots eventually slowed down over the final four games of the regular season, allowing the Broncos only seven points in the second half of a 41-23 victory. The Patriots picked up where they left off in that game by allowing only 10 points (the second fewest allowed all season) in the playoff game and generally shutting down everything the Broncos tried to do with a disciplined defense.
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While Belichick has taken fair criticism over the past two years for the failure to rebuild the defense after players such as Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison left, the team has struggled to keep defenders on the same page given all of its injuries this season.
Of the 11 defensive players who started the season, four have gone on injured reserve (defensive tackle Mike Wright, defensive end Andre Carter, cornerback Ras-I Dowling and safety Josh Barrett). The secondary has been hit particularly hard with injuries. Aside from Dowling and Barrett, safety Patrick Chung missed eight games in the regular season and cornerback Devin McCourty missed two. Things were so bad that the Patriots experimented with McCourty at safety for a time.
Overall, injuries have forced the Patriots to start a total of 23 different players on defense over the course of the season. That doesn't include wide receiver-turned-defensive back Julian Edelman, who's responsibilities were increased because of injuries to teammates. Only two players (defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Rob Ninkovich) have started all 16 games.
"Our problem has been consistency," said backup defensive tackle Gerard Warren, an 11-year veteran who was signed in September when it became apparent that fellow defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth was not going to work out (another move that Belichick has taken heat for locally).
Part of Warren's motivation to resume his career is redemption. The last time he was in the AFC championship game was with Denver in the 2005 season. The Broncos lost to Pittsburgh, leaving Warren bitter.
"That one still burns," he said. "You don't focus on it, but it's there and you never forget it. It makes me focus all that much more now that we're at this stage. … It's about tackling, following the assignments and doing it consistently. We've been working on that the whole time."
Even when players have been in and out of the lineup.
"They come in and put in a lot of extra time watching film, preparing, studying. I think all of our players really have gotten better individually," Belichick said. "We've had some moving parts where some guys have worked with other players beside them or in front of them or behind them as the case would be. We stayed at it and some things have gotten better. We still have a lot of work to do, there are a lot of things we can improve on. I think overall, the work ethic and the confidence of the unit has been good. Hopefully we can continue to get better."
In today's NFL, that's enough.
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