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Christopher L. Gasper

Can this defense provide answers?

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Columnist / November 26, 2011
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FOXBOROUGH - There are certain mystical questions that are just unanswerable, beyond the powers of human cognition.

What is the meaning of life?

Why does one sock vanish without a trace from the laundry?

What was Kris Humphries thinking?

Do the Patriots possess a championship-caliber defense?

The last of those was the fundamental question facing Bill Belichick and his team entering the season.

Ten games (7-3) into what looks like another superlative campaign and a day before they play their final game of November, against the Philadelphia Eagles, we’re really no closer to a definitive answer to a crucial query that will dictate the Patriots’ football fate than we were when training camp commenced in July.

And a schedule devoid of elite passers down the stretch isn’t going to help. It’s a shame it appears we won’t get to see the Patriots’ fast-improving defense tested by a Philadelphia offense at full strength.

The Eagles have the third-rated offense in the NFL, trailing only the Saints and Patriots. They have the NFL’s leading rusher in LeSean McCoy, but they’re unlikely to have Michael Vick, who hasn’t practiced this week because of broken ribs. Plus, speedy wide receivers Jeremy Maclin (hamstring/shoulder) and DeSean Jackson (foot) will probably be game-day decisions.

After the Eagles it’s a QB club consisting of Curtis Painter, John Beck/Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow, Matt Moore, and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

This season has always been about the defense. Whether it has Phillip Adams or John Adams at cornerback or Sterling Moore or NESN’s angry angler Charlie Moore at safety, it has to deliver.

It can be a no-name unit. It just can’t be a no-game unit come playoff time, like the last two seasons.

When you stack the Patriots’ defense up against the other defenses of AFC contenders it makes you a little nervous.

The top three defenses in the NFL reside in the AFC and belong to the Patriots’ competition - the Texans rank first, followed by the Steelers and Ravens.

The Texans (second), Steelers (third), Jets (fifth), and Ravens (sixth) are all among the top pass defenses in the league, although Tom Brady seems to have figured out Rex Ryan’s esoteric schemes.

You can chide Baltimore for losing to Seattle and Jacksonville, but the Ravens turned the 49ers into stuffing on Thanksgiving. Baltimore probably sacked San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith a 10th time on his way to the airport.

So, the odds that on the road to the Super Bowl the Patriots will face what passes for a defensive struggle in today’s pass-happy NFL are good.

Beating Tyler Palko with Julian Edelman in your defensive backfield is one thing, doing it to Ben Roethlisberger or even (just an average) Joe Flacco is quite another.

We all know what the Patriots’ offense is capable of with Brady and his bunch. The defense is once again the solve-for-X in the Patriots’ Super Bowl equation.

Remember back in the preseason when the Patriots were going to have a ravenous and Raven-like defense?

Jerod Mayo was going to be turned loose and turned into Ray Lewis. Devin McCourty was going to lock down receivers like Darrelle Revis. Patrick Chung was going to channel his inner Rodney Harrison. The defense was going to go from dyspepsia-inducing to dynamic.

It hasn’t happened that way. Combined, Mayo, McCourty, and Chung have one sack and one fewer interception than Vince Wilfork (two).

Other players have emerged, chiefly Pro Bowl-deserving cornerback Kyle Arrington, the NFL leader in interceptions who plays like he has charted opposing team’s throws on Google Maps, and defensive end Andre Carter, a pro’s pro who has proven true the preseason prediction of a miscast defensive lineman from the Redskins boosting the Patriots’ defense.

But on balance the defense is still a hold-your-breath, bend-but-don’t-break enterprise, when faced with a competent NFL quarterback, something they haven’t seen since Eli Manning left Fort Foxborough with a comeback win.

The Patriots better hope Belichick was right when he pronounced stats were for losers. They still rank last in the NFL in total defense and pass defense. They’re the only team in the NFL allowing more than 400 yards of total offense per game (404.2), but the passing yardage has finally dipped under 300 per contest (298.9). It was at 324.7 after the loss to Pittsburgh Oct. 30.

The good news from a New England perspective is that in the most important defensive stat of all - points allowed - the Patriots pass the litmus test. After allowing a total of 19 points in their last two games, the Patriots are 10th (20.3 points per game).

That’s better than the undefeated Green Bay Packers, a club that is oft-cited when Patriots followers get defensive about the Super Bowl credentials of their defense. Green Bay is allowing 20.6 points per game.

The perfect Packers, who are attempting to duplicate the unblemished 16-0 regular season of the 2007 Patriots, are 30th in total defense (393.4 yards per game) and ahead of only the Patriots in pass defense. However, the Pack lead the NFL in picks with 22.

Here is the oversight on the Packers-Patriots allusions and delusions.

Green Bay’s defense allowed just 15 points per game last year and was fifth in total defense and passing defense. They still have Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams.

So, despite their slide down the defensive rankings this season there is tangible prior proof that they’re capable of playing like a championship defense when needed.

They submitted more evidence on Thanksgiving in limiting a Lions team that has topped 40 points three times to 15 points. The Pack held Matthew Stafford to less than 300 yards on 45 throws and intercepted him three times. Calvin Johnson had four catches for 49 yards and a garbage-time touchdown.

We’re still waiting for that kind of resounding proof from the Patriots’ defense, and through no fault of their own we’re probably not going to get it until the postseason.

The question remains, and so will the answer until January.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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