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Patriots’ signals mixed

Numbers not super, but results are there

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / November 10, 2010

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FOXBOROUGH — When the NFL rankings came out yesterday, they didn’t paint a pretty picture for the Patriots.

On offense, the Patriots are 20th in total yardage. Their rushing attack, if you can believe it, is ranked higher (15th) than the passing (tied for 17th).

The defense is 29th — 21st against the run and 29th against the pass.

So the Patriots’ average ranking in total offense and defense is 24.5.

Of the 32 teams to advance to conference championship games starting with the 2002 season, none has had that low of a combined ranking.

Actually, it’s not even close.

Only three teams had an average worse than 16: the ’03 Eagles (19.0), ’07 Chargers (17.0), and ’04 Falcons (17.0). None advanced to a Super Bowl.

There is one big silver-and-blue lining, though, for Patriots fans. The 2001 Super Bowl champions were almost a carbon copy statistically (19th in offense, 24th defense).

There’s one big difference, too. Those Patriots ranked sixth in the league in both points scored and points allowed. They capitalized on their chances offensively and were tough on defense in the red zone.

The point in looking at these yardage rankings is that successful teams don’t have to be great in every aspect of the game. They find something to hang their hats on.

The Patriots are still very much searching for that peg, which is why they’re foundering a bit despite a 6-2 record.

So why are they tied for the best record in the league?

There are a few reasons:

■ Tom Brady. His completion percentage has dropped in every game since the Randy Moss trade, but opponents say he’ll always be the trump card, no matter the personnel.

“He’s just so good now that he’s more sure about his knee this season,’’ said an AFC personnel executive. “You see the throws and reads that he makes, but it’s other things. He just controls the clock so well. Gets that team in a certain tempo with the short passing game. He gives the players a confidence, obviously. You always fear him.’’

■ The Patriots are scoring. They are second in the league with 27.4 points per game. That overshadows the fact that they are 23d in scoring defense (23.5). Yards can certainly be an indicator, but scoring offense and defense are two of the more important statistics.

■ Big plays on defense and special teams. The Patriots’ five return touchdowns rank second in the league. At this pace, they would break the franchise record of eight set in ’07 and 1961 (14 games).

■ Bill Belichick and his staff have constructed a disciplined team. The Patriots are tied for sixth in the league with 44 penalties for 371 yards. They are tied for ninth with a plus-5 turnover differential.

■ New England sustains offensive drives. It is fifth in the league in third-down conversions (44 percent).

■ They defend their turf: The Patriots were 4-0 at home in the first half. The conventional thinking is to put a premium on home games and hope for a split on the road. The Patriots are 2-2 away from Gillette.

■ Schedule. The Patriots have beaten one team, the 6-2 Ravens, that has a winning record. The other five victories have come against teams that are a combined 19-30. That all changes in the second half, when the schedule features opponents that are a combined 34-31. That includes the 0-8 Bills.

We’ll know much more about the Patriots in the next two weeks, as they travel to Pittsburgh (6-2) and host Indianapolis (5-3).

If they are going to be division champions, they’re going to need more contributions from a few areas and players.

■ Deion Branch: In his first two games, he had 13 catches for 137 yards. He has three receptions for 42 yards in the past two games. A hamstring injury has hindered his short-area quickness and leaping ability, though Branch insists he was much healthier against the Browns. The Patriots better hope he is. With Wes Welker unable to stick a foot in the ground and shake man coverage the way he did before knee surgery, Branch has to be a threat. He thinks he can. “I’m going to be that guy,’’ Branch said. “But in order for me to be that guy, then everybody else has to do their job. It won’t just be me by myself.’’

■ Outside linebacker: The Patriots have 13 sacks, which puts them on pace for 26. That would be their lowest total since the 20 put up in the 2-14 season of 1992, which was Dick MacPherson’s swan song. They have gotten 3.5 sacks from their outside linebackers (Rob Ninkovich, Shawn Crable, Jermaine Cunningham, and Tully Banta-Cain). Not many 3-4 defenses survive that kind of output.

“That’s a factor,’’ the AFC executive said. “They get some of their pressure from blitzing and the guys up front. But, yeah, it’s definitely a factor.’’

The lack of pressure on the quarterback goes hand in hand with New England’s struggles in the secondary. If the Patriots can harass QBs more in the second half, the coverage in the secondary will be dramatically better.

■ Brandon Spikes: The rookie inside linebacker has been very good overall, and he’s been at his best in the big games (Jets, Ravens, and Vikings) when the run defense excelled. Spikes has been a bit inconsistent, which is to be expected.

From this point forward, many teams are bound to copy the Browns’ game plan of concentrating on Jerod Mayo and forcing Spikes to make plays. It’s a tough spot for a rookie, but he’s shown he’s more than capable of doing the job if he stays disciplined in his gap assignments. And many teams don’t have the offensive line the Browns do. They are running on every team.

■ The defense has to get off the field: The Patriots are last in the league on defensive third-down percentage (48). Not surprisingly, they are 31st in time of possession allowed (34:03). Only the Cardinals are worse. Again, this goes back to pressure on the quarterback.

It will be a tough chore for the Patriots to duplicate their first-half record starting Sunday night in Pittsburgh. There’s a lot of youth on the team in key spots. That happens when the three drafts of 2006-08 produce only two starters (Mayo and Brandon Meriweather).

But the Patriots have hit the past two years. How quickly that young talent puts it together — especially on defense — likely will tell the tale of the ’10 Patriots.

“They’re not the same team they used to be, because they’re really young,’’ the AFC executive said. “But I think when they learn, they’re going to be a really good team.

“Will that happen this year? Could be. They’ve shown signs. They could be dangerous in the playoffs.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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