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Dan Shaughnessy

Never a team to fumble around

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 21, 2010

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Six games. Zero turnovers.

Fourteen games. Nine turnovers.

An NFL-best turnover ratio of plus-20.

The 2010 Patriots take care of the football. It is what they do best. It is the ultimate formula for success in the NFL. When we try to explain a 12-2 record and a smooth path to the Super Bowl, it is the most underreported statistic of them all.

“These guys don’t put the ball on the ground,’’ said Troy Brown, the receiver who won three Super Bowls here. “It’s one of the big reasons why this might be the best Patriot team of them all.’’

Grid god Bill Parcells preached taking care of the football as much as any coach. He brought the philosophy here when he rescued the New England franchise in 1993 (it is too often forgotten that Parcells preceded Kraft, Belichick, and Brady). Yesterday he took a few moments to talk about protecting the football.

“This is going to sound kind of funny, but at the very worst it means you’re able to punt the ball and keep field position,’’ Parcells said. “I’m serious. That may not sound like much, but it is. Of course, at best, when you’re not turning the ball over it means you’re scoring and not giving them opportunities.’’

Six straight games without a turnover is an NFL record. It may not be the only record for these Patriots. The record for fewest turnovers in a full NFL season is 13 — established by the 2008 Dolphins (Parcells’s first year in Miami) and the 2008 Giants. If the Patriots avoid more than three turnovers in the next two games, they’ll be the new champs of stinginess. (And for the record, the Chiefs have only 10 turnovers.)

“Our Super Bowl team that beat the Bills had, I think, only 14 turnovers in 19 games,’’ said Parcells. (The ’90 Giants had 14 turnovers in 16 regular-season games and one in the playoffs.)

The old coach correctly noted that Tom Brady has had some good fortune avoiding interceptions recently.

“He got away with one last night,’’ the Tuna said, referring to the pass that slipped through the hands of the Packers’ Charles Woodson in the Patriots’ 31-27 win Sunday night.

Amen. The Packers had chances to pick a couple of passes. Just as the Bears had opportunities a week earlier. It takes some luck for a quarterback to throw 292 consecutive passes (also an NFL record for one season) without an interception.

Vinny Testaverde was famous for throwing interceptions. Wiseguys said it was because Testaverde was color blind. Parcells knew better. He taught Vinny to bring the ball in and take a sack rather than try to make something happen when there was nothing there. Quarterbacks who try to do too much (hello, Brett Favre) are the ones who throw a lot of picks.

Running backs who put the ball on the ground pose another problem for coaches. Some coaches make running backs carry footballs around all day. To the bathroom and back. To the cafeteria at lunch. Tom Coughlin had luck with this tactic when he coached the fumble-prone Tiki Barber. Tiki fumbled only nine times in three seasons under Coughlin.

“There’s only a couple of things you teach,’’ said the Tuna, who was boss of Coughlin and Bill Belichick. “We have those gauntlet drills [defenders line up and do everything but swing sledgehammers at ballcarriers] that we do during warm-ups. And when the offense is practicing, you have the defense be intent on stripping the ball. You have them make a conscious effort to get the ball out.’’

After building five franchises (Giants, Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Dolphins), Parcells has relinquished his day-to-day duties with Miami. He still remains on the masthead as a consultant, but he doesn’t seem jealous of the Patriots’ success. Watching the way they take care of the football makes any old coach happy.

Belichick, who learned a lot of football from Parcells, knows he got away with a victory Sunday.

“In the end it worked out,’’ said the Hoodie. “But obviously we’ve got to play a lot better than this or our season won’t last long.’’

He’s right. The win over the Packers was nothing like the blowouts against the Jets and Bears. It was not impressive like the win at Pittsburgh or the big lead the Patriots built against the Colts.

This was the Patriots defense once again looking like a house of cards. The unit was shredded by a kid quarterback. It was easy to run against. The Patriots needed trusty home-field advantage (New England has won 63 straight when playing with a fourth-quarter lead in Foxborough). They needed a Pick-6 from the defense. And they needed a historic, 71-yard kickoff return from Dan Connolly, a guy who weighs more than 300 pounds (I’m still waiting for Bill to say, “We worked on that on Friday.’’).

How do you win a football game when you have the ball for 19 minutes and 12 seconds and the other guys have the ball for 40:48?

Not easily. But your chances are enhanced when you protect the football. The 2010 Patriots are 11-0 in games in which they have a positive turnover ratio. The team record for best turnover differential in a season is plus-17 — established by the 2003 Patriots.

The 2003 Patriots, of course, went 14-2. And won the Super Bowl.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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