Watchword is defense during this glorious ride
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The oldest of football adages says the best offense is a good defense. If that's the case, the New England Patriots have more offense than Joe Montana's 49ers. If the best offense is a good defense, then this year's Patriots are Florida's Fun 'N Gun without the sun. They're the Greatest Show on Turf. They're the Dallas Cowboys of Aikman, Irvin, and Smith, the Steelers of Bradshaw, Swann, and Harris, the San Diego Chargers of Don Coryell.
If the best offense is a good defense, the Patriots may have one of the best offenses in history because they certainly have one of the best defenses.
Last night the Patriots escaped Giants Stadium with a 21-16 victory in which the defense scored one touchdown, set up another, and forced New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington to throw five interceptions in a game in which New England's designated offense was a minimalist effort.
That didn't matter because New England's offense is its defense and that defense is not only the second stingiest in the NFL but also the highest-scoring defense in the league. It is allowing only 15.8 points per game, and when that's the case and it manages to score a touchdown on its own, as it did last night when Willie McGinest intercepted a second-quarter Pennington pass that he tipped and corralled, then the designated offense doesn't have to do much more than score one touchdown to win the game.
That is exactly what happened against the Jets. New England scored 48 seconds into the game when Tom Brady followed a Tedy Bruschi interception with a 35-yard scoring pass to David Givens. Give the defense an assist on that score, and then follow it up with McGinest's 15-yard return for a touchdown and add three more second-half interceptions, and you have a defense the Jets found to be very offensive.
Very offensive indeed.
"They're a good defense," conceded Jets coach Herman Edwards. "We knew that going in. It's tough [to win] when you turn it over five times. You can make all the [offensive] changes you want. You turn it over five times, and it doesn't matter. It's too many. You can't overcome it."
That has been the driving force behind the bulk of the Patriots' 11 straight victories, the last of which assured them of not only a first-round bye in the playoffs but also kept them in control of home-field advantage for as long as they're in the AFC championship race.
Occasionally New England's offense has made a loud statement, as it did against both the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts, but for the most part the Patriots are a team whose offense is most definitely its defense, and that was never more evident than last night, as five defenders intercepted Pennington, beginning with Bruschi and McGinest in the first half and expanding to include Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, and rookie safety Eugene Wilson, whose pick in the last minute sealed the victory.
"This is the best secondary I've been around in terms of getting their hands on the ball," Bruschi said after they'd finished getting their hands all over the balls Pennington was throwing.
On this night, those five interceptions came in every imaginable way. They came from schematic creation (Bruschi), from great individual effort (McGinest), from singular skill and perfect technique (Law), from pressure on the quarterback (Harrison), and from sheer desperation on Pennington's part (Wilson).
They came like a hard rain, washing away the Jets' hopes on a night the Patriots knew they could nearly lock up everything that was important in the regular season. A first-round bye is set. Home-field advantage throughout can come with either an Indianapolis loss tonight against Denver or another New England victory.
The Patriots deserve all of that, and they got closer in the way their team should have gotten closer in light of what they are. They got closer because their defense dominated the day. Or in this case the night.
Offensively, the Patriots converted on only 3 of 11 third-down attempts, a dismal 27 percent. They gained only 271 total yards and their passing game produced but 138. Yet none of that mattered because this is a team whose offense is its defense.
It is a defense that leads the AFC with 27 interceptions and 37 takeaways. It is a defense that scores more points (38) than any other defense in the league, having surpassed the Vikings in that oddest of defensive categories the moment McGinest leapt into the air, tipped Pennington's pass, and sprinted untouched into the end zone.
If one deducts the defensive scoring from the Patriots' total of 317 points, their margin of victory this year is less than a field goal. While the defense is allowing 15.8 points per game, the real offense is scoring only 18.6 per game. But if you add in those 38 defensive points, the Patriots are averaging 21.1 points a game, nearly a touchdown difference. In short, their defense is the difference on offense as well as on defense, and it's because this is a group that does one thing. It makes hard plays look easy.
"Those first two interceptions [by Bruschi and McGinest] were great plays," conceded an admiring Pennington quite rightly. Great plays and costly ones for the Jets because they set the tone for the kind of evening it was going to be.
On this evening, it didn't matter much what their offensive counterparts did as long as they didn't commit team suicide because the defense made sure not much needed to be done. Not even much scoring.
"The interceptions and a couple of stops early were key," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They moved the ball, but we were able to make some stops."
They made some stops, they made five interceptions, they scored a touchdown. As defensive efforts go, there was nothing defensive about it. The Patriots' defense attacked all night. Attacked the Jets with a defense that can be downright offensive and last night certainly was.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.