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Going on the defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  November 23, 2009 12:20 AM

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Christopher L. Gasper

FOXBOROUGH -- The NFL hath no fury like a defense scorned. Mark Sanchez and the Jets learned that the hard way yesterday.

All week the Patriots defense had to listen to the fourth and 2 debate following the collapse against the Colts. Every argument that Patriots coach Bill Belichick made the right decision and was truly giving his team its best chance to win by going for it on his own 28 up by six points with 2:08 to play was either a direct or indirect indictment of the defense.

For an entire week a unit that hadn't allowed more than three touchdowns in a game until the 35-34 loss to Indy last week and is allowing 16.4 points per game, second-best in the league -- behind the Colts, of course -- was doubted, dissed, dismissed and dissected. Yesterday, they hit back and evoked another "d'-word -- dominant.

New England's non-Tom Brady unit did everything but chase Sanchez back to the team bus in a 31-14 beatdown of the Jets yesterday at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defense forced Sanchez (8 of 21 for 136 yards and a score) and the Jets into five turnovers (four interceptions and a strip-sack) that led to 17 points.

They held the Jets to 226 yards of total offense and grounded their passing attack, allowing just 122 net yards of passing. They only surrendered seven points -- the Jets' first touchdown came on a blocked punt before the half. At the half, when the Patriots led 24-7, the Jets net yards passing matched Sanchez's jersey number -- 6.

Cornerback Leigh Bodden, who got the Patriots on the board first with a 53-yard interception return for a score in the first quarter, caught as many of Sanchez's passes (three) as his two leading receivers, Dustin Keller and Jerricho Cotchery. If it weren't for Cotchery's garbage-time 33-yard reception on the game's final possession, the Jets would have been under 100 net yards passing.

The defense's dismantling of the Jets offense led the New York media to pepper Cryin' Rex Ryan with questions about whether he planned to bench the QB he dubbed the "Sanchize" earlier in the season.

After the game, Patriots defenders said all the right things about not being extra motivated by being put on the defensive about their play against the Colts. They talked about how they had moved on from the Indianapolis loss. But how could they not take what happened at Lucas Oil Stadium and its aftermath personally?

They did and it showed.

However, the reality is we're no closer to knowing how good this defense is and whether it's good enough to take the Patriots back to the Super Bowl than we were after Indianapolis.

"I think that's yet to be seen. I think the only way you prove that is you win a championship," said linebacker Adalius Thomas, when asked if the Patriots had a championship-caliber defense. "You can talk about it, and you can do all this other different stuff about it, but until you do it it really doesn't mean anything. So, you can only have one championship defense and that's the person that wins the Super Bowl."

The defense is definitely better than what was forecast at the beginning of the season with the losses of Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour. There has been the emergence of playmakers in Bodden, who now has five interceptions on the season, safety Brandon Meriweather, and outside linebacker/defensive end Tully Banta-Cain, who had both Patriots' sacks and forced Sanchez's fumble.

But it can't be considered elite until it closes out a contest by making a stop with the game on the line, a chance it never really got against the Colts. Don't tell me that having to stop Peyton Manning when he has been gift-wrapped the ball inside your own 30 with two minutes to go constitutes a fair fight.

Meriweather's fourth-quarter interception of Sanchez at the Jets' 29 with 9:53 left was pivotal, but it doesn't qualify. First, it was an absurdly foolish throw by Sanchez, who was under pressure near his own goal line, and second the Patriots had a 10-point lead (24-14) at the time.

It goes without saying that there is a Grand Canyon-sized difference between flummoxing a lost rookie QB like Sanchez, who prior to yesterday's four-interception effort already had three- and five-intercepton efforts to his name, at home and shutting down an elite quarterback like Manning on the road.

That's why Meriweather answered in the negative when asked if he felt the defense had proved its point with its suffocating play against the Jets.

"No, we played a rookie quarterback that we had a couple of different schemes in for," said Meriweather. "I think if we step up to the plate this [Monday] and do exactly what we're supposed to this week then I'll say we prove something."

Meriweather is right. We're really going to find out what the Patriots' defense is about a week from today, when they head to New Orleans to face the 10-0 Saints in the Superdome. That's their signature game.

New Orleans is every bit the offensive juggernaut that the Patriots were in 2007 and right now Drew Brees is every bit the quarterback that Brady is. The Saints are averaging 36.9 points per game, which would eclipse the amount of points the Patriots averaged during the record-setting 2007 season, when they scored an NFL-record 589 during their point-a-palooza tour of the NFL. The Saints are also tops in the NFL in total offense at 420.5 yards per game. By comparison the 16-0 Patriots of '07 averaged 411.3.

Stop the Saints and the questioning will stop too.

But Meriweather said it doesn't matter whether the Patriots' defense makes believers out of the fans and media. They believe in themselves.

"It's always like that. You're only going to have 53 players who believe in each other, so it's always us against the world," said Meriweather. "Even in '07, when we went undefeated we had people out there saying we couldn't do it. It's always us against the world. That's how we like it though."

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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