Adam Kaufman

The Morning After: Playoff-Bound Patriots Can Win it All Despite Offensive Shortcomings

Patriots defense blocked field goal.jpg

Buy your hat. Grab your T-shirt. For the sixth straight season and the 12th under coach Bill Belichick in 14 tries, the Patriots “Run the East”.

Sure, there are some who will attempt to take away from that accomplishment by celebrating New England’s accomplishments while simultaneously dismissing the rest of the AFC East as anywhere from inferior to embarrassing – and there’s been evidence to support that in recent years – but doing so would shortchange Belichick’s throwback group.

Dating back to the arrivals of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte’ Stallworth in 2007, Tom Brady’s offense has taken center-stage in Foxborough. The veteran quarterback has evolved from being known solely as a winner, with three Super Bowl titles in his first four years, to one who also produced some of the best statistical seasons under-center of all-time.

In that time, the defense has gradually worsened, from ranking fourth in the NFL in both total points and yards allowed in 2007 to as low as 15th and 31st, respectively, in 2011 – the year of the Pats’ last appearance in the league’s main event.

Entering this season, prior to the additions of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, Belichick’s defenses ranked no better than 25th in yards against in any of the last four years. His club’s scoring offense in that time never sat lower than third, a large reason the squad won at least a dozen games in each of those seasons.

Looking back, it’s difficult to properly evaluate the last four Patriots' teams that fell short because in each case they were either absent All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski (2012 and 2013), his physical abilities were severely limited (2011), or he wasn’t yet the party-loving, defense-wrecking, touchdown-machine we’ve come to know and love (2010).

Perhaps had Gronkowski been healthy at season’s end, the Pats would have outlasted the Giants in Indianapolis, triumphed over the Ravens, or upset the Broncos. We’ll never know.

We do know that in each of the last four campaigns, Brady’s offense has averaged just 16.8 points in their final tests of the season, while the defense has surrendered 25.8 points. Neither the offense nor the defense was capable of finishing the job, even if you’d elect to simply chalk that up to one miracle catch and another devastating drop.

The narrative has changed this season.

While Brady is enjoying an MVP-caliber season – an award that will ultimately go to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, though the New England quarterback will receive his share of votes – it’s the Patriots’ defense that will land the group in Glendale in February and potentially on Duck Boats shortly thereafter.

That’s not to take away from Brady’s resurgence. After a painfully slow four-game start to the season during which the Pats averaged only 20 points, the team has won nine of 10 and scored 36.2 points per game along the way. Gronkowski is the matchup nightmare, Julian Edelman is the versatile football-magnet, Brandon LaFell is the drive-starter, Tim Wright is the sure-handed presence in the red zone, and an effective committee leads the backfield.

But consider Sunday’s 41-13 win over the Dolphins, which dropped Miami to 4-13 all-time in Foxborough during the months of December and January, and elevated the Pats to 60-6 at home during the regular season since late in 2006.

Against a slightly above-average defense and a woeful run-D, the Patriots led only 14-13 at halftime after being outgained 271-102, 74-20 on the ground.

In those first two quarters, Brady completed 8-of-15 passes for 82 yards and an interception. Gronkowski was targeted twice, but failed to make a catch.

Both of New England’s touchdowns were a direct result of defensive plays; first, a blocked kick by Jamie Collins that was recovered and returned to the house by Kyle Arrington, and then a Duron Harmon interception of Ryan Tannehill that was carried back 60 yards to the Miami 8-yard line before Shane Vereen’s rush into the end zone three plays later.

In the third quarter – with New England ahead 24-13 after LeGarrette Blount’s third touchdown since returning to his old stomping grounds, plus a 35-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal – Patrick Chung added a pick that was followed immediately by a 27-yard strike to Gronkowski for a 31-13 advantage.

“I think we’re just playing well,” Harmon said of the defense after the win. “We’re finally all coming together. I mean, everybody’s just doing their job and that’s what it all comes down too and when you got 11 people out there and really tone it in and do their job, we can have days like this.”

Brady rebounded to pass for 205 yards and two scores after halftime as the Patriots’ offense exploded for 24 points in the third quarter to cruise to victory. But the impact of the defense deserves the lion’s share of the credit. The Fins didn’t get on the board once after the break.

“I thought we did a better job of coming out that in the second half, aided by some turnovers by our defense,” admitted Brady. “Our defense has just been playing incredible, which is what we’re going to need. I'm glad we started to earn our paycheck there in the second half. It was good to be able to do that.”

It wasn’t just the second-half on Sunday for the defense…

While Brady and company have blown out fellow contenders from Cincinnati, Denver, Indianapolis, and Detroit by an average of nearly 24 points in recent months, the defense’s ability to shut down or contain some of the league’s top wide-outs in the process has been the story in this club’s road to an 11-3 mark.

Thanks for coming, T.Y. Hilton, Calvin Johnson, Julius Thomas, and Reggie Wayne. Good to see ya, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Emmanuel Sanders, Golden Tate, and Demaryius Thomas.

Revis Island has been unwelcoming to tourists and Browner’s physicality has driven opponents – and, at times, maybe his coach – absolutely bonkers. On the line, even without injured captain Jerod Mayo, Collins, Dont’a Hightower, and others have stepped up to ensure a run-defense that has held teams below 100 yards in all but five games this year, including five of the last six. In terms of total yards allowed, the Pats’ D has stayed under 350 yards seven times. Their plus-10 turnover differential ranks fourth in the NFL.

With Chandler Jones back from his hip injury (he had 1.5 sacks, seven tackles, two hurries, and two QB hits) and Hightower over his shoulder ailment, the swagger-filled defense should only get better.

The Patriots proved Sunday – just as they did earlier this season against the Vikings, Raiders, Colts, and Chargers – they are capable of winning when Brady isn’t at his best. In some cases, when he isn’t even good.

That hasn’t been the case for the last handful of years. If Brady wasn’t effective, the team couldn’t win.

For much of the first decade of QB’s career, however, the likes of Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin, Rodney Harrison, Asante Samuel, Lawyer Milloy, and so many others routinely made up for any emergence of a substandard Brady.

Brady, of course, shouldn’t take this reality as a slight; any reliability on the defense to make a key stop should be celebrated.

The Patriots haven’t been this balanced since 2007, when they went 18-0 before, well, you know. Prior to that, you’d have to go back to 2004, the last time Belichick smiled in February. That Super Bowl victory over the Eagles wrapped up a run where the Pats intercepted five balls, registered 11 sacks, recovered four fumbles, and scored one defensive touchdown in their three title-winning contests.

That’s compared to just one interception and six sacks in two defeats to Big Blue and Eli Manning.

With the way New England’s defense keeps it in games before the offense is ready to strike, rather than the Pats being forced to play catch-up as they have in recent years, there is a new dynamic surrounding the outlook for this team.

“Each time we step out onto the field we need to get better as a defense,” stated Devin McCourty, who made a huge third-down stop in the end zone on Charles Clay late in the first quarter to force a Miami field goal. “So to come out and play another good game defensively, which is always important holding teams, points-wise; if we hold a team to 13 points, there’s a high chance our offense is going to go out there and get 14 or more each game. So it’s a good job and we’ve got to continue to do that.”

Fourteen points on offense? Yeah, the Patriots should be able to handle that.

After two more cakewalks through the division, a first-round playoff bye, and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, this season must end with an opportunity to play for the Lombardi Trophy.

It may sound spoiled and entitled to outsiders who have developed all the reason in the world to loath Patriots fans. Fair or unfair, it is also the one reasonable expectation locally. To borrow the “Obnoxious” hat from my pal Bill Speros for a moment, the Pats are in a different class than their AFC challengers, possess a better defense than the Packers, and a more impressive offense than the defending-champion Seahawks.

These opportunities don’t come around often. When they do, the only option is capitalize. For the first time in a while, though, it’s reassuring to know that success won’t all depend on Brady.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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