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Patriots grasp the situation

Hanging on to ball has led to victories

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / January 1, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — Seeing Tom Brady go 319 passes (and counting) without an interception was not — is not — the goal of this season, Alge Crumpler notes.

But it certainly is impressive.

Brady has gone 10-plus games since his last interception, late in regulation against the Ravens Oct. 17, setting an NFL record last Sunday for attempts without a pick.

As a team, the Patriots have not turned the ball over in seven games, which is also a league record. No other team has ever gone more than four games without committing a turnover.

The offense’s run of clean sheets, plus the defense’s interceptions and fumble recoveries have led the Patriots to an NFL-best turnover ratio of plus-27.

Given the emphasis coaches put every week on winning the turnover battle, it’s likely no coincidence that 10 of the top 12 teams in the league in giveaway/takeaway have clinched playoff spots or are in good position to do so.

“The reality is, whenever the ball is in your hand, you sort of hold the fate of the entire team in your hands,’’ said Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “There’s nothing more important than ball possession and ball security every single play.’’

Coaches preach the importance of ball security, and quarterbacks are never looking to throw interceptions. But preaching it and trying to avoid it don’t always make it so, which is a big part of why Brady and the Patriots’ run is so remarkable.

“I mean, it blows my mind a little bit, to be honest with you,’’ said Tony Sparano, whose Dolphins visit Gillette Stadium tomorrow in the regular-season finale. “When you think about tipped balls or the level of play in secondaries now in this league and how good those people are in the back end, but just a simple tipped ball — a tipped ball has haunted us three or four times this season in different ways. To think that not one of those things is happening in 300-plus attempts is pretty impressive.’’

Brady has just four interceptions this season — his fewest for a full season is eight, in 2007 — and New England has just nine total turnovers. Barring a disaster against the Dolphins, the Patriots will set an NFL record for fewest turnovers. The current mark for a 16-game season is 13, set by the Giants and Dolphins in 2008.

Nearly every day at practice, Patriots running backs take turns trying to punch the ball away from each other. And Brady is furious if he is picked off in practice.

“I think we’ve got guys that have done a great job protecting [the ball] this year, no doubt about it,’’ Brady said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve done anything different this year than we’ve done in the past. I just think that guys who are in possession of the ball have done a very good job of that: the running backs, the receivers, all those guys, [believe] that when you have it in your hand, you’re not putting it on the ground. And that’s probably more the style of the player.

“We never say, ‘Hey, let’s turn it over three times and see if we can win this game.’ The first goal every week is no turnovers. We’ve been very fortunate. We need to continue to understand the importance of taking care of it — to not give up short fields. I think us winning the turnover ratio over the last seven weeks or whatever it’s been, it’s certainly been more scoring opportunities for us and fewer scoring opportunities for them. That’s why I think we’ve been outscoring these opponents like we have been.’’

Caserio attributed much of Brady’s streak to his exhaustive preparation. Crumpler said that on the plane ride home after road games, Brady already is watching film of the next opponent.

But it isn’t just preparation that makes Brady a success, it’s the fact he makes the correct decisions with the ball.

“I think it’s a credit to Tom and really, it’s a credit to the offense as well, because if you want to execute, the players have to be in the right spots, the receivers have to be in the right spots, the protection has to be [right], so there are a lot of factors that go into it,’’ said Caserio. “But in the end, Tom is the one that’s pulling the trigger and he’s very diligent and very conscious taking care of the football. Tom has done a great job all year. I think he’s been consistent every year, just making good decisions with the football. Quite frankly, it’s a remarkable achievement and it’s a credit to him.’’

Though no player wants to be the one who ends the streak, or perhaps is in the wrong spot and when Brady gets picked off, Crumpler insisted no one is thinking about that. They’re just concerned with protecting the football every time they touch it, as they’ve been told every week.

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