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Can the Patriots offense carry them to the Super Bowl?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 13, 2012 10:08 AM

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Beyond tomorrow night's meeting with the Denver Broncos, the question remains: Can the Patriots win a Super Bowl with a team that is disproportionately reliant on both a quarterback and a high-flying offense?

And for that matter, can anyone?

So begins the Patriots' latest quest for the Super Bowl championship, a potential fourth title during the marriage of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. What we all want to believe is that those two men alone are enough. But if the Patriots are to win another championship in these next few weeks, they will have to do so in a manner with which they have not yet succeeded.

Or, perhaps, with a complete break from how they have performed thus far.

Statistics are for losers, as Belichick has often told us, so let's forgo any discussion here about the yardage the Patriots have allowed through the air, about turnover differential, about yards per rush or quarterback rating. Let's focus on the one thing that we all agree matters: scoring. In the Belichick era, only once have the Patriots finished the regular season with a defense ranked sixth or better (basically the top 20 percent) and failed to reach at least the AFC title game, that coming in the 2009 campaign that was Brady's first in the wake of knee surgery.

Of course, that was the year of fourth-and-2 at Indianapolis, after which the Patriots effectively became the 2011 New York Jets, their locker room deteriorating to the point of mutiny. That Patriots club finished sixth in the league in scoring offense and fifth in the league in scoring defense, but nonetheless ended up as Route 1 road pizza after the Baltimore Ravens ran them over in January.

To that end, here is where the Patriots have ranked in scoring offense and scoring defense during the regular season since the start of their golden era in 2001:

201018Lost divisional round
200965Lost divisional round
200888Missed playoffs
200714Lost Super Bowl
200672Lost AFC title game
20051017Lost divisional round
200442Won Super Bowl
2003121Won Super Bowl
20021017Missed playoffs
200166Won Super Bowl

Maybe you glean something from that list. Maybe you don't. For every Patriots team that has failed (and we use that term very loosely) during the Brady-Belichick era, there is an explanation or excuse. By the time the 2006 Patriots faced Indianapolis in the AFC title game, for example, their second-ranked defense was battered and decimated. The 2007 club should have won the Super Bowl. The 2009 team lacked heart and character, blowing out bad teams like Tennessee (59-0) and Tampa Bay (35-7) while getting trampled by New Orleans (38-17).

In that latter scenario, you come out with a 2-1 record and a point differential of plus-66, but are you really that good?

What that list does tell us, if anything is that the Patriots have never reached the AFC title game with anything worse than a defense that ranked in the top six in the league in scoring, a trend that is likely to end following tomorrow night's affair against the heavy prohibitive underdog Broncos. And what it tells us, too, is that the Patriots have been able to protect a mediocre (at times) offense with a well-above average defense far more effectively than they have been able to do to the other way around.

NFL history, too, has shown us that you are more likely to win with a dominating defense than a dominating offense, for whatever reason. In 2008, for instance, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl with an offense that ranked 20th in scoring. The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked 18th in scoring offense, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens 14th. Those clubs were every bit as stifling defensively during the playoffs as they were during the regular season, meaning the formula never really changed.

So, which teams have won with offense? The 2009 New Orleans Saints are the most obvious example, though it is important to remember that they were a domed team that played the entire postseason at home before facing the Indianapolis Colts (another domed team) in a Super Bowl played in Miami (Even then, the biggest play of the game was a defensive play). The 2006 Colts possessed a historically bad defense during the regular season, but Indianapolis was shockingly better during the playoffs, holding opponents to eight, six and 17 points in three of its four playoff games.

And before anyone suggests that Peyton Manning somehow protected those Indianapolis outfits, he didn't. In four postseason games that year, Manning had individual game ratings of 71.9, 39.6, 79.1 and 81.8. His overall rating was 70.5. He threw three touchdowns and seven interceptions. He had no more than one touchdown pass in any game.

That Colts team, without question, is perhaps the greatest hope for these Patriots, who seem as flawed defensively as any team during the Belichick era. But does that mean New England cannot play good defense when it counts? Certainly, time will tell. In New England last's two big wins -- at the New York Jets on Nov. 13 and against the Broncos last month -- New England totaled nine sacks and forced six turnovers. Neither the Jets nor the Broncos really qualifies as anything more than an average offensive team, but the Patriots defense made at least enough of a contribution in those affairs to help affect the outcome.

Starting tomorrow night, can the Patriots do the same? We will soon find out.

Based on recent history, after all, their chances at a championship may very well depend on it.

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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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