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Patriots defense answered call and critics

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 23, 2012 03:46 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Faith can be defined as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." That's how you would have to describe the idea that the Patriots possessed a championship defense -- until yesterday.

Let the record show that it was the defense -- with an assist from an errant kicker (Billy Cundiff) and a gridiron guardian angel (Myra Kraft) -- that won the AFC championship for the Patriots and set up a rematch with the New York Giants.

That's right the doubted, derided and dissed Patriots defense, the one that gave up the second-most passing yards in the history of the league and resided near the bottom of NFL rankings all year, is the reason that the team is going to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI after a nerve-wracking 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.

No less an authority than quarterback Tom Brady stated it.

"I sucked pretty bad [Sunday], but our defense saved us," said Brady, who was limited to 22 of 39 for 239 yards with two interceptions and had his streak of 18 straight postseason games with a touchdown pass snapped.

Hearing those words -- "our defense saved us" -- come out of Brady's mouth was as unlikely as hearing "and the Academy Award goes to Blake Lively."

But it's true. The defense bottled up Baltimore's Ray Rice and made up for a minus-two turnover disparity by holding the Ravens to one touchdown in four red zone trips.

The question from the outset of this season was could the Patriots win a playoff game if Brady was less than exceptional? Put more bluntly, it was is this defense good enough to win anything?

For all the blame-tossing at Brady for last year's 28-21 loss to the Jets, it was a 14-11 game at the start of the fourth quarter, when the Patriots defense allowed Mark Sanchez and the Jets to sashay into the end zone, covering 75 yards in just five plays.

It was easy to point the finger at Brady because he's the quarterback, and NFL quarterbacks are like presidents and the economy. When times are good they get too much credit. When times are bad they get too much blame.

But fixating on Brady's play following the Jets' loss last year merely showed how distorted the view of championship football had become around here. We had been spoiled by Brady and a Patriots offense that since 2007 has lit up the scoreboard like the Esplanade on the Fourth of July. Points are pretty, champions are gritty.

You can't win a championship on one side of the ball. Just ask Dan Marino.

For most of this season, as the Patriots' auditioned defensive backs on a weekly basis and used so many different combinations of defenders that teammates could have used name tags, it appeared not much had changed from last season. TB12 could've still claimed the defense as dependents on his 2011 tax return.

But yesterday, a unit that had been written-off answered the bell and its critics (right here).

The defense set the tone for the game by holding the Ravens to minus-6 yards on their first nine plays, and they provided the denouement with clutch defensive play in the fourth quarter to protect a precarious three-point lead.

Brady and the Patriots offense mustered just 31 yards and three first downs in the fourth. The Ravens held the Patriots to their second-lowest offensive yardage output of the season, outgaining New England, 398 to 330. It didn't matter.

Unlike the previous nine games, the performance of the Patriots' defense could not be chalked up to incapable quarterbacking. Beleaguered Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco silenced his critics as well, going 22-39 for 306 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.

This was about young players like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, who had a huge fourth-quarter interception, and Patrick Chung earning their stripes.

It was about a disposable, undrafted rookie defensive back who a few months ago was mistook for an employee at a Best Buy in Mansfield, Sterling Moore, making the play of the season, dislodging the ball from Ravens receiver Lee Evans to save a go-ahead TD with 22 seconds left.

It was about the proud doyen of the defense, Vince Wilfork, playing like a man possessed. Toggling between left defensive end and nose tackle, Wilfork was in the Ravens backfield almost as much as Rice. He single-handedly ended a Ravens threat late in the fourth, stopping Rice for a three-yard loss on third and 3 at the Patriots' 30 and then pressuring Flacco into a desperate, fourth-down fling.

No one was happier for the defense than their offensive teammates, even if some like Deion Branch couldn't bear to watch the fateful final drive by Flacco and the Ravens.

"I think that's the defense we've been expecting all year," said right guard Brian Waters. "Outside, look, we don't really pay much attention to the noise outside of this locker room. We know what we have in here. They just showed the rest of the country what we already know.

"This is what I wanted people to see. That we're really a good defense. You tell your friends. You tell your family, 'Nah, we're really better than our numbers seem.' But it's better when those guys are able to show it."

They also showed the rest of the country that defense still matters in the NFL. If the Patriots had applied the same brand of defense to the postseason that they did to the regular season they'd be at home with the other offensive-oriented teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers.

Instead, the Patriots are one win away from joining the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the 2009 New Orleans Saints as defenses that outperformed their regular-season reputations and were rewarded with Super Bowl rings.

It's not about blind faith anymore. Now, seeing is believing.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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