Overshadowed by an incompetent offense, can the Patriots’ defense remain among NFL’s best?

At 6-4, the Patriots are still in the heat of the competition thanks to a defense that has quietly become one of the best in the NFL.

Matthew Judon sacked Jets quarterback Zach Wilson during the fourth quarter. Jim Davis/Globe Staff


That game didn’t deserve a memorable ending.

The only meritorious outcome after watching the Jets and Patriots turn the football clock back to 1908 would have been a tie stitched onto the end of both team’s records. There it would forever serve as an addendum to remind us just how pathetic the AFC East rivals performed against each other on a blustery, late-November afternoon.

Instead, the 10-3 slog goes into the books as a “win” for New England, which has pulled itself out of last place in the division for the first time this season. For 10 weeks, the Patriots kept the seat warm for the New York Jets, now back in their most-familiar habitat in the AFC East. The Patriots, meanwhile, jumped up a spot in the NFL’s current playoff picture, moving to No. 6, while the Bengals, fresh off their win in Pittsburgh, snagged the seventh rung of the postseason ladder.

Only Bill Belichick’s Patriots could perform that badly and find their situation improved.


If it weren’t for Marcus Jones’ 84-yard punt return just before time expired, maybe there would be some justice. It’s hard to imagine a pair of teams that both struggled to put a grand total of six points on the board through nearly 60 minutes of football could muster another three to win in overtime. But we’ll always wonder.

The Patriots are winning in spite of their disastrous offensive game-planning, which seemingly took a step back during an extra bye week of preparation. Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, the acting offensive coordinators, provide Patriot fans with new reasons to ridicule them with every passing week, yet there have been some slight improvements. When he wasn’t crumpled to the turf, quarterback Mac Jones actually made some good decisions throwing the ball Sunday, completing passes to nine different receivers. His 104.6 quarterback rating was the first time over the century mark since last season’s 50-10 demolition of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And realistically, the Patriots should have put nine whole points on the board if kicker Nick Folk didn’t uncharacteristically miss a pair of field goals.

It’s hard to figure, particularly watching the incompetence on Sunday, how there are 12 other NFL teams scoring fewer than the Patriots’ 21.3 points per game on offense. Denver, sure. Indy, OK. The Rams, Bucs, and Packers? Surely the offensively-challenged Patriots have been worse.


Yet there they are, a middle-of-the-pack offense, only a game out of first place in the highly-competitive AFC East. Blame the putrid offensive line. Blame Mac Jones. Blame Patricia and Judge. Blame Belichick for the way he constructed the whole mess for his second-year quarterback.

Yet, at 6-4, the Patriots are still in the heat of the competition thanks to a defense that has quietly become one of the best in the NFL. Stats-wise, at least. Only the Dallas Cowboys (16.7) have allowed fewer points per game than the Patriots (16.9). Only Denver, Philadelphia, and Dallas have allowed fewer passing yards per game than New England (188.3). Only the Eagles, Bills, and Steelers have more interceptions (11). Linebacker Matthew Judon might break the NFL’s single-season sack record by Thursday night.

According to Sports Illustrated’s Conor Orr “Patriots opponents are averaging 0.116 points per snap below league average, the lowest mark in the league, per Ben Baldwin’s open-source website. A mere 39.6 percent of passing plays against the Patriots result in what we should determine a ‘successful’ down, via that same site. They are No. 1 in Football Outsiders’s DVOA rankings. Matthew Judon leads the league in sacks and makes about $15 million less than the highest-paid edge rusher in the NFL.”


In other words, there’s been a lot to like about the Patriots defense. Not that you would be paying it the attention it deserves. New England’s defense and special teams are like the good kids at the Thanksgiving table, the ones you don’t notice so much over their obnoxious Tik-Tokking cousins. 

Over the last two games, both incredibly-tedious grinds, the Patriots defense and special teams have scored as many touchdowns as the offense. That’s not sustainable. It’s also the reason why we’re not talking more about the defensive side of the ball. The offense has been so abominable that it makes it that much harder to find the good on the team.

There’s also a “bogeymen” fear lingering, that this defense is much like the one that was putting up historic numbers in 2019 before actually facing competent competition. It’s a fair concern, especially considering the last two teams beaten were the Colts and Jets (twice). New York had more punts than it did first downs on Sunday, leading Zach Wilson to shrug his shoulders and spark a mini-mutiny in the Jets locker room. The only team with a top-10 offense that the Patriots have beaten happens to be the lowly Lions.

Belichick has to love turning back the clock and winning primarily with special teams and defense. Which is all great and neat when you’re facing the likes of the Jets. How’s that going to play Thursday night in Minnesota, where the Patriots have to go up against what has been one of the league’s better offenses coming off an utter embarrassment at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys? How are those units going to fare against the Buffalo Bills a week later, provided there isn’t another wind storm to tilt the outcome? Can the Patriots really win solely on special teams and defense against the high-powered attack of the Miami Dolphins? Please.


Maybe in 1963. In the modern-day NFL, you’ve got to at least possess a somewhat-comprehensive offense to stay in the game. Imagine if the Patriots had anything close to that. How good would they really be?

The Patriots aren’t going to win the Super Bowl. The issue is, with even the slightest improvement in their offense, the defense might be able to carry them there. That’s hard to do when you’re dealing with an offense that hasn’t improved over an 11-week span.

There will be more afternoons like Sunday, when the Patriots struggle mightily on the field only to tip their caps to the defense and special teams for carrying the load. Again. But the next few times will look a lot different than Sunday, especially going up against the likes of the Vikings, Bills, Bengals, and Dolphins. The Colts and Jets of the world are finished for another year. This will be, indeed, when we find out what the Patriots are made of.

We already have the answer on one side of the ball. Unfortunately, that’s the aspect that will be the team’s undoing.

Maybe the remainder of the season will wind up like Sunday’s game; an unremarkable team saving its best for last.

After more games like Sunday though, we’re going to need frequent reminders about how good the defense really is. Maybe the unit will finally get its due after facing competition that really gives it something to crow about.


Because the earlier we forget about Sunday, the better we all will fare.


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