Can Patriots discover 'complementary' identity entering season finale?

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Perry: Patriots show glimmer of 'complementary' identity vs. Dolphins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FOXBORO -- It's one of those football phrases that has seemingly become synonymous with the Patriots. Like "do your job" or "ignore the noise," they aren't the only ones who use it. But over time, it's become theirs.

"Complementary football" is something Bill Belichick has preached incessantly during his time in New England. In order for the offense to play well, it needs help from its defense and special teams. And the reverse is true. And on and on it goes.

During their Super Bowl runs, the Patriots have been the ultimate example of complementary football. But this season, as they've scuffled toward a .500 record through 16 weeks, that term they once owned has gone missing.

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"Football is a team game," one defensive leader told me last week after losing to the Bengals. "We need the offense to play well. We need our special teams to play well. We need our defense to play well. We can't just have one unit playing well. We need all three to win games."

The reality, though, is that they've had only one unit playing well for large chunks of their season. Their defense is fifth in the league in points allowed, eighth in yards allowed, fifth in yards per carry allowed, fourth in quarterback rating allowed and seventh in yards per pass attempt allowed.

"Hats off to them guys," receiver Jakobi Meyers said Sunday. "They've kept us in a lot of games that we probably shouldn't have been in. They score points. They stop you from scoring points. Hopefully they just keep getting better like they've been doing so far this year, and we'll keep trying to get better."

The Patriots defense scored again on Sunday -- their fourth straight week with a touchdown -- when Kyle Dugger picked off Teddy Bridgewater and barreled into the end zone.

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"We want to win by any means possible," safety Adrian Phillips said. "We do take it upon ourselves to find a way into the end zone and help the offense in any way that we can help them.

"We know, when it comes down to it, we're going to need their help. We just do what we do and take it upon ourselves to see how many times can we score? How many turnovers can we get? How much can we effect the game? We've just been building on that and everybody's buying in."

The Patriots looked a tad more complementary than they have been for much of this season when they put together an 89-yard drive in the fourth quarter to score their second touchdown of the game. In what has become a rare occurrence this season, Belichick's offense was able to come through to help the other side of the ball. The Patriots defense allowed a last-ditch touchdown drive by Miami, but held on to win the game 23-21 and keep their season alive.

The Patriots were nearly doubled up in time of possession against the Bengals in Week 16 and in a loss to the Bills in Week 13. But it was closer on Sunday, with New England having possession for just over 26 minutes.

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"It helps a lot," Phillips said. "You get to stay on the sideline. You get to rest. You get to talk about the stuff that they're doing with [Devin McCourty]. When the offense is out there making plays, it makes it even more fun for us."

Did they find anything in the fourth quarter that they may be able to carry into their finale in Buffalo in Week 18? Can the Patriots become that complementary model they chase despite having struggled to get there through the vast majority of the season?

"I would say so," Meyers said. "At least I'm hoping so. That's something that we practice hard for every day we go out here and put our pads on. If that's what we turn into, I'll be real proud of it. It's always good when you catch stride. Doesn't matter when you do it."

Matthew Slater, captain of a special teams unit that has also had its issues with consistency, felt similarly.

"I believe we can (be complementary)," he said. "I was talking to my dad the other day. The Rams went to the Super Bowl in 1979, they were 9-7. Barely got in. They got hot at the right time, started playing well. Even think back to the Giants, they were 9-7 in 2011 when they beat us in the Super Bowl.

"It's never too late to start playing well. Especially since we're still alive. I hope our best football is ahead of us. I think we have a lot of belief in this locker room. If we didn't, we wouldn't have come out and competed today the way that we did. Hopefully the best is yet to come."