FOXBOROUGH — Go ahead and celebrate, New England. Sunday’s 27-26 comeback victory over the Browns was one you’ll never forget. That pass interference call on Leon McFadden in the end zone was a nice makeup for the non-call against the Panthers in Week 11.
But Patriots fans shouldn’t feel good about the win, and we’re not just talking about the potentially devastating injury suffered by star tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The Patriots hardly have a playoff-caliber defense, let alone championship-caliber, and the unit was exposed Sunday.
For the third time in four games since the bye week, the Patriots managed just one sack, a Rob Ninkovich coverage sack in the fourth quarter. They simply aren’t getting enough pressure on the quarterback — just six sacks in the past four games. Chandler Jones, who has had a breakout second season with 10½ sacks, has been shut out the last two weeks.
And the lack of pressure by the defensive line has a trickle-down effect for the rest of the defense. Namely, they aren’t forcing enough turnovers — they had zero against the Panthers, one against Houston, and zero against the Browns, who had committed 11 turnovers in their previous three games. The Broncos did turn the ball over four times, but three were fumbles on a frigid night in which the ball was tough to grip.
And the lack of quarterback pressure left the defensive backs in bad one-on-one situations. Josh Gordon showed again why he might be the best young receiver in the game when he took a quick slant and outraced Aqib Talib 80 yards for a touchdown.
A playoff-caliber defense doesn’t let Jason Campbell throw for 391 yards and three touchdowns, or the NFL’s fifth-worst rushing team to gain 108 yards on a 4.3 average. A playoff-caliber defense takes care of business at home against the Browns, a team that had lost six of seven prior to Sunday, and two weeks ago scored just 11 points against the Steelers, who gave up 55 points to the Patriots.
The Patriots were able to mask their shaky defense with stellar offensive play the last three weeks. But with Gronkowski suffering a scary leg injury Sunday, those days might be over with.
And a Patriots defense that carried the team through the first eight weeks of the season suddenly looks slow, feeble and incapable of making big plays.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin