Patriots defense bent back into shape, but still looking up at the rest of the NFL

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. –Getty Images

COMMENTARY

And you were worried.

That’s six-straight wins now for the New England Patriots, coming off a thorough demolition of the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City over the weekend. Six-straight games in which the Patriots have allowed fewer than 20 points from the opposition, averaging only 12.5 points over the stretch. Six-straight wins during which coordinator Matt Patricia and head coach Bill Belichick should receive the bulk of the credit in resuscitating a defensive unit that seemed destined for more moribund itineraries than the depths of a mid-winter Minnesota.

Fourteen, 17, 7, 13, 16, and 8. Those are all the points the Patriots have allowed since surrendering a total of 128 over the first four games of the season (an average of 32 points per game), a metamorphosis that has New England back in the discussion that really didn’t go anywhere as the team to beat in the Super Bowl early next year.

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“We’re just playing together,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said after his team’s 33-8 rout of the Raiders Sunday south of the border. “We’re executing. Like I always said, every year, you’ve got to kind of learn who you are. You guys ask this early in the season all the time, what’s the team’s identity? I think we kind of figure that out.”

I think we owe an apology to those who remained adamant the Patriots would be a defensive juggernaut in 2017.

OK, so the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ranked 13th in total offense with 342.8 yards per game), New York Jets (25th), Atlanta Falcons (10th), San Diego (I don’t care) Chargers (15th), Denver Broncos (18th, sparking them to fire offensive coordinator Mike McCoy), and Oakland Raiders (21st) don’t exactly shout out the Murderer’s Row NFL equivalent. But if anyone wants to play that game, feel free to hand them the 36-20 win the Patriots have over the league’s No. 1 team in total offense (New Orleans Saints) this season.

The Patriots spent the first four weeks of the season ranked dead-last in total defense, an embarrassing basement dwelling from which they have throttled themselves…wait…actually, nowhere at all.

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Ten games in, the Patriots are still averaging a whopping 401.9 yards per game, only worse than the pathetic New York Giants by about five points per contest. They still allowed 344 to the Raiders on Sunday, despite the score. The Broncos had 339 yards on them, which, with Brock Osweiler at the helm, is like 600-plus for better quarterbacking capabilities.

It was 349 yards for the Chargers, 343 for the Falcons, and 408 for the Jets. The Bucs whipped off 409 yards of total offense in the first game of the winning streak, so it wasn’t like the Patriots defense saw immediate returns in the wake of the panic it had administered over the first quarter of the season.

How much does that stat really mean though? Consider that the Jacksonville Jaguars sit in the penthouse having allowed an average of 275.6 yards per game this season. How much is that really going to matter when they lose in the AFC title game in Foxborough? Or lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round? Or just — more likely — miss the playoffs entirely?

The Carolina Panthers, Broncos, Steelers, and Minnesota Vikings round out the top five. Only the Steelers can realistically be considered a Super Bowl contender amongst that group. Sorry, Case Keenum.

Besides, this bend, don’t break mentality shouldn’t really be anything new for anyone who has preached “In Bill We Trust” even when the faith has to reside on the shoulders of suspects like Cassius Marsh.

The Patriots are now 12th in the NFL in points allowed per game (20.3), and the 12.5 averaged over the last six-pack would average out to the best in the league over the course of 10 games. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise you that New England was eighth in total defense last season, allowing 326.4 yards per game, but was first in points allowed (15.6).

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The Patriots are 13th in the league in red zone defense, but this is where the magic happens. Over the first four games, New England opponents managed to score during 57 percent of their trips to red zone territory, a number that has, not surprisingly, dropped to 38 percent over the last six games.

As Belichick would say, “Situational football.”

“We’ve had our moments,” the head coach said. “There’s still a lot of things that we need to work on and need to improve in. Each game gets a little more demanding because your opponent has had another week of things that you know they’ve shown and you have to work on, and so the volume builds up. Of course, our volume has built up over the last ten weeks, too. We just have to keep grinding away week by week, and that’s what we’ll try to do.”

Yards? Who cares about yards?

The Patriots have become one of the best defenses in the NFL despite the loss of team captain Dont’a Hightower, the early-season buffoonery of $65 million Stephon Gilmore, and a weekly turn in the script that narrates the potential soap opera of Malcolm Butler. The Miami Dolphins will still put up around 375 yards this Sunday at Gillette and have about six points to show for it all.

It always happens this way. No surprise.

Just don’t prematurely freak out about it next time.