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On this day, decision to man up a good match

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 2, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - No, it certainly was not a Picasso painted by the Patriots’ defense in closing the regular season with yesterday’s 49-21 victory over the Bills.

They spotted the Bills 21 points and were helped when Buffalo lost two of its top targets when receiver Stevie Johnson (discipline) and tight end Scott Chandler (injury) missed most of the final three quarters.

So besides No. 2 receiver David Nelson, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick spent the rest of the game throwing to castoffs Derek Hagan (Dolphins, Giants, Raiders) and Ruvell Martin (Packers, Rams, Seahawks), and someone named Naaman Roosevelt.

But Patriots fans have been used to finger painting all season long from this group: It’s messy, but at the end of the day there’s a certain charm to the performance, with the Patriots at 13-3 and sitting pretty as the AFC’s top seed.

What that means for the postseason, no one knows.

Since losing at home to Eli Manning and the Giants, the Patriots have faced quarterbacks Mark Sanchez, Tyler Palko, Vince Young, Dan Orlovsky, Rex Grossman, Tim Tebow, Matt Moore, and Fitzpatrick. Only Tebow is going to the playoffs - because of his legs, not his arm.

But it wasn’t how the Patriots played against the Bills that was noteworthy. It was what they played. For the first time in weeks, the Patriots played man coverage. Nearly wire to wire, be it man-under (one deep safety) or two-man (two deep safeties), the Patriots were matching up with the Bills all over the field.

That is significant. Even Bill Belichick, in his own way, acknowledged as much.

“It could be,’’ Belichick said. “It depends on what you’re trying to stop.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to all of our calls, our defenses, all of our plays. If there’s an advantage to doing something, then we’ll try to do it, but I don’t know what the next challenge is going to be or whether some of the things we ran today would even be in the game plan two weeks from now. I have no idea. We can’t really worry about that.’’

In this day and age of passing in the NFL, you have to play effective man coverage - at least at times - to keep offenses off balance. It’s called “spinning the dial’’ - dialing up different coverages in certain situations. For long stretches this season, the Patriots have been dealing with a limited rotary phone.

The Patriots played mostly man coverage to start the season, as part of a grand revamping of the defense. Armed with a plethora of good defensive linemen, the Patriots were set to pressure the quarterback with just four, and then play man coverage on the outside with Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden, and rookie Ras-I Dowling.

As we know, the plan fell apart for a variety of reasons. Defensive linemen Myron Pryor and Mike Wright were lost for the season, and Albert Haynesworth never came close to dominating for stretches and was released.

McCourty couldn’t make the switch from playing mostly zone in college and as a rookie, to man-to-man techniques. Bodden was injured, lost a step, and was released. Dowling never could get healthy and was placed on injured reserve.

The Patriots had to retreat to the comforts of zone coverage, and hope they could hold offenses enough that Tom Brady could do the work. Mission accomplished in the first 16 games.

But to win in the postseason, the defense is going to have to do more than just play zone. For one, the quarterbacks are too advanced and accurate. Look at Sanchez last year in the Patriots’ playoff loss as evidence.

And second, if the Patriots are going to get pressure on the quarterback, they’re going to need to blitz. That’s what we’ve seen since Andre Carter went on injured reserve. When you blitz, you have to play a fair amount of man-to-man.

The Patriots at least showed future opponents that they could throw man coverages at them if they want to.

“It is good to put that on film,’’ said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “We always try to spin the dial, mix it up, different defenses here and there. But sometimes certain game plans, you just have to run with what’s working.’’

The Patriots are still, 17 weeks into the season, trying to find the right personnel.

McCourty was switched to safety in nickel and dime packages against the Bills likely for two reasons: His struggles in man coverage, and because the Patriots have been weak at safety opposite Patrick Chung the entire season after Josh Barrett (injured reserve) and Sergio Brown flamed out. James Ihedigbo is better closer to the line of scrimmage.

“I don’t know,’’ McCourty said when asked if his lack of effectiveness factored into the move. “I just know the coaches came up to me and said, ‘You’ll play a little safety this week,’ and I just took it from there and just played, whether it was corner or safety.’’

McCourty, who had an interception off a deflection yesterday, could stay there. He’s one of the team’s best tacklers with the play in front of him, and the same goes for playing the ball after backpedaling.

“He’s a good player,’’ Chung said. “He can get the ball, tackle, he can hit. That’s what you need as a safety. He’s a baller.’’

And it will be up to Arrington, Antwaun Molden (interception), Sterling Moore (two interceptions, one for a touchdown), and receiver Julian Edelman playing in coverage with a rover back - usually Chung - free to jump a route here and there.

“We have what we have, so does everybody else,’’ Belichick said. “Everybody in the league has had to deal with injuries and that kind of stuff. We dealt with them, so has everybody else. We do the best we can.’’

After showing the ability to play more man coverage, that goes for personnel and scheme.

That’s a long ways from where they were after the Week 3 loss to the Bills.

We’ll see whether they’ve come far enough when the playoffs start.

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

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