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Home field would be nice, but a defense would be better

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  October 28, 2011 11:28 AM

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The AFC could be firmly in the grasp of the Patriots come Monday, though the priorities of this 2011 season are unchanged. The defense remains the first order of business in Foxborough. And it will remain so through December.

And so, as important as Sunday’s game could be with regard to the postseason landscape – and it could be huge – we have been there, done that. Last season, the Patriots went 14-2. Last season, the Patriots had both home field advantage and a first-round bye. And last season, the Patriots were nonetheless upended by the New York Jets, the second consecutive postseason in which New England went one-and-done at the once impenetrable Gillette Stadium.

In their last two playoffs games, both at home, the Patriots have allowed 61 points, an average of precisely 30.5 per game. Compare that with the Patriots’ run from 2001-2007, when New England went 8-0 in home playoff games and held opponents to an average of just 11.9 points per game. Foxborough was a fortress then. And the Patriots defended it like one.

So what does this week’s game against the Steelers mean? Everything and nothing, depending on your perspective.

First, the obvious: with a win at Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Patriots will have a two-game lead in the loss column over both the Steelers and New York Jets at nearly the halfway point of the 2011 season. The Baltimore Ravens will be a game back. And the Pats will have head-to-head victories over both the Steelers and Jets - the latter of whom they will face again on Nov. 13 – giving New England leverage in tiebreakers.

Home-field advantage and a first-round bye will New England’s to lose.

Now the question that has been at the core of this season from the very beginning: of the Patriots can’t play defense, will any of that even matter anymore. From 1970 through 2004, only one wild card team – the 1985 Patriots – reached the Super Bowl by winning three straight road games. In the last six years, three teams – the `05 Steelers, `07 New York Giants and last year’s Green Bay Packers – not only reached the Super Bowl, but won it. All of that cannot help but make you wonder what, if anything, home-field advantage really means in the NFL playoffs anymore, particularly in an era when offenses are more and more empowered.

And then there is this: in the last four years, home teams are a mere 21-19 in the playoffs (a .525 winning percentage) compared with a a record of 586-438 during the regular season (.572). The point is that home field recently has meant less in the playoffs than it did during the regular season. That is even more disturbing when one considers that, from 2001 through 2006, home teams went 39-21 in the playoffs, a winning percentage of .650 that, when compared to the regular season home winning percentage (.568), suggested home field meant more during the playoffs.

But not anymore.

At least not recently.

Of course, there is every chance that the most recent four-year sample of postseason football is too small a sample from which to draw any major conclusions. Nonetheless, it warrants some thinking. The '05 Steelers, '07 Giants and '10 Packers all had good defenses – in the case of the Giants, they elevated some playoff time – a seeming pre-requisite for winning on the road, especially, And while neither the Ravens of 2009 nor the Jets of 2010 reached the Super Bowl after leaving Foxborough, both the Ravens (third) and Jets (sixth) were among the stingiest in the league in scoring defense.

All of this brings us back to the 2011 Patriots, who currently rank a mediocre 15th in scoring defense and a dreadful 32d overall (dead last) in total defense (based on yardage). Nonetheless, New England’s performance over the last two weeks suggests legitimate cause for optimism, the Pats winning by scores of 30-21 (against the Jets) and 20-16 (against the Dallas Cowboys) in games that required more trench warfare than the typical, modern NFL shootout.

AT this stage, what that means is open to debate. But Patriots coach Bill Belichick overhauled his defensive line in the lockout aftermath with the idea of making the Patriots a better defensive team come January. Because the offense is a relatively known commodity at this point thanks largely to the brilliance of Tom Brady, the greatest objective of this season was, from the very beginning, the week-to-week improvement of the defense, which has failed the Patriots miserably in the last two postseasons.

Last week, in defeating the Cowboys, the Patriots won a game in which they had scored 20 points of fewer for the first time since a December 2009 affair against a dreadful Buffalo team. To find a similar game in which the Patriots defeated a quality opponent, one might have to go all the way back to November 2006, when the Pats defeated the eventual NFC-champion Chicago Bears by a 17-13 count in Foxborough.

Come playoff time, of course, that Patriots defense crumbled in the second half of a devastating loss to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game. Belichick responded by assembling the club that went 18-0 before losing to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, at which point Patriots history clearly took a decisive turn.

Since then, New England hasn’t won a playoff game at home or anywhere else, with or without a bye.

And entering this weekend’s important game with the Steelers, we all know why.

Their defense hasn’t been anywhere near good enough.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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