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Patriots’ offseason priority must be defense

Posted by Adam Kaufman  February 3, 2014 12:08 AM

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Malcolm Smith 2.jpg

Super Bowl XLVIII MVP honors could have gone to several different players. The most appropriate solution would have been to distinguish several total players, as in the entire Seahawks defense.

Alas, one man was selected – the previously anonymous Malcolm Smith. The third-year linebacker intercepted Peyton Manning late in the first half, resulting in a 69-yard return for a touchdown to put Seattle ahead 22-0. He also recovered a fumble, deflected a pass, and tied for his team’s lead with 9 tackles, five of those solo. So much for anonymous.

But the talk after the 43-8 blowout of Denver’s NFL record-setting offense in gorgeous East Rutherford, NJ (the weather, that is), was the defense. Broncos head coach John Fox called Seattle’s D a “buzz saw.” That might be putting it mildly.

Sure, Russell Wilson was effective and efficient. Yes, Percy Harvin was elegant and electric. But a big, physical, fast, and furious defense won the game. One of the best damn defenses of all-time, and it was that way all season long.

The Broncos were limited to 18 first downs and held to just 306 total yards – a mere 11 in the first quarter. For frame of reference, those stallions averaged 455 yards of total offense in their previous 18 games and they finished with fewer than 397 only twice.

Manning set a Super Bowl record with 34 completions in an otherwise putrid performance. His team had four turnovers, and he was responsible for three of them with two interceptions and a fumble. The five-time NFL MVP and the newly anointed Offensive Player of the Year – he of 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards during the regular season – was held to 280 passing yards, a single TD, and a 73.5 passer rating. The QB was hit four times, sacked once, and had eight passes deflected. Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the halftime stars, but Manning would have made Men Without Hats proud with his safety dance only 12 seconds into the action.

For those still moping about the Patriots’ almost equally boring performance two weeks earlier in the AFC Championship Game, rest easier now; they wouldn’t have won this game, either. It’s more fun to say Peyton Manning’s 1-for-3 in Super Bowls than Tom Brady’s 3-for-6, isn’t it?

This isn’t simply that Manning is an 11-12 career playoff performer (a record number of losses), or that he choked in yet another big situation. Bad as he was, he didn’t individually lose the game; Seattle won it, just as it would have gotten the best of Brady.

The verdict is in. While I picked Pete Carroll’s Seahawks to earn their first ever championship in a much less lopsided affair entering the evening, my main point is that much clearer: Defense wins championships.

As I wrote previously, only once has a top NFL offense won the Super Bowl since the start of the 2000 season. Now, there have been five league-best defenses to take home the Lombardi Trophy. In fact, it was the fifth time in six meetings between top squads from each category that the D has prevailed. More often than not, the historically superior scoring team falters.

All of the talk surrounding the Pats since their overachieving exit, and throughout the season for that matter, has been about how Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick need to recognize and take advantage of Brady’s remaining window of elite play. At 37 come training camp, he’s not getting any younger.

But, while we can dream, even the expensive Larry Fitzgerald isn’t the answer. The Patriots loaded up in 2007 and we remember how that ended. A 17-14 loss, courtesy of a miracle catch on one side and an offense that didn’t show up on the other. The Broncos averaged nearly 38 points per game during the regular season this year and scored eight in the Super Bowl. Oh, and all-mighty All-Pro Richard Sherman was carted off the field early with an injury, to boot.

As long as the Pats have Brady and a couple of somewhat reliable options, they’re good enough to contend there. We witnessed it. Never mind Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, or any other what-could-have-beens. Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen missed half the season and Danny Amendola was essentially injured for all of it, and New England still won 12 games on the way to a first-round playoff bye.

Defense is the need this offseason. Re-signing Aqib Talib is a must, or an equally capable cornerback on the left side. Signing depth for the secondary is vital. Restructuring Vince Wilfork’s contract in order to bring him back and allot some of his funds elsewhere is a priority, before hoping he, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly can stay on the field, at least near season’s end. Add to the pass rush, giving support to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Sign a reliable safety. Continue to grow and develop the likes of Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, and Alfonzo Dennard, among others. It sounds like a lot, but New England isn’t that far away.

In fact, to their credit, that may have been their mentality entering the 2013 campaign when they re-signed Talib, inked Kelly and Adrian Wilson, and focused much of their draft attention on defense. Collins, Ryan, and Duron Harmon were all selected in the first three rounds, and five of the Pats' seven total picks were spent on D. It was hard not to wonder at points during Sunday's massacre what the Patriots might have been capable of had they not been so dramatically derailed by devastating injuries.

With a Top 5 caliber defense and a Top 10 offense – which is almost a guarantee with Brady on the field, even with a bunch of “smurf” receivers – the Patriots will return to the Super Bowl in 2015.

The mistake would be devoting all of their money to free agent receivers like Eric Decker, Anquan Boldin, Golden Tate, or even another marquee tight end. Yes, they need to add weapons for Brady.

However, the biggest favor the Patriots could do for their quarterback would actually be to stabilize the other side of the ball.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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