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Time for an encore from the Patriots

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  December 14, 2012 09:25 AM

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Beyond the wake of euphoria following the dismantling of the overmatched Houston Texans on Monday night, the San Francisco 49ers now await. And what the Patriots will find in them is a team equipped to unseat New England both on the field at Gillette Stadium and in the hierarchy of the NFL.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the saying goes, and so let there be no doubt about the implications of Sunday night's game between clubs who might very well meet in the Super Bowl come February. With a win, New England all but cements itself as the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a chance at No. 1. With a loss, the Patriots could slide out of a bye and into a potential first-round matchup with a team like, perhaps, the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first-round of the playoffs.

In the NFL, in December, there is no rest for the weary.

What we learned on Monday, after all, is that the Patriots have improved every bit as much as we thought they had, particularly on defense, and that New England is once again the team to beat in the AFC. Now the Pats just have to maintain their position. Doing so will require an encore performance against the Niners, who seemingly have the first prerequisite for defeating the Patriots in the aerial show that has become the modern NFL.

An elite defense.

Or, more specifically, an elite pass defense that can turn the mighty New England offense into something less than prolific.

Here's the problem: there are those who continue to perceive the Patriots offense as an unstoppable force of nature, and that simply is not true. The fact is that the Patriots can score against most everyone. But in recent seasons, including this one, there is mounting evidence is that the first step to beating Tom Brady is not a comparable quarterback, but rather a stingy pass defense.

For those of you who believe in football metrics, Kerry Byrne of Cold Hard Football Facts has been preaching the historical value of defensive passer rating, which effectively measures defensive efficiency against the pass. This year, the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, and Baltimore Ravens rank a respective second, third and 10th in the league in that area. Baltimore has augmented its position by allowing the fewest touchdown passes in the league (12 - tied with Seattle), half the total allowed by the Texans (24, who rank 25th in the league in that category.

Let's say that again. As good as the Houston defense has been this season - and it has been good - the Texans have also been shredded by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions, and even Chad Henne and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Brady threw four touchdown passes against them on Monday night, one-third of the season total allowed by Seattle or Baltimore all year.

And, of course, Arizona, Seattle and Baltimore just happen to be the three teams to have defeated the Patriots this season which hardly seems a coincidence when looking at other years, too.

For example: beyond an aberrational loss to the Buffalo Bills last season, the Patriots dropped three other games - two to the New York Giants and one to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh had one of the best defense in the league. And while the Giants rated in the middle of the pack, even the harshest skeptic might acknowledge that the Giants are a schizophrenic team that, for lack of a better description, takes weeks off.

The point is that the Giants are capable of playing elite pass defense, which they did during their trip to Foxborough last season and again in the Super Bowl. In the postseason last year, in fact, the Giants faced the Atlanta Falcons (Matt Ryan), the Green Bay Packers (Rodgers), the Niners (Alex Smith) and the Patriots (Brady). Incredibly, New York's defensive passer rating improved, which seems illogical given the quality of quarterback the team faced.

The Giants, it seems, play when they have to, which is what still makes them a frightening matchup for any team.

Even in 2010, when the Patriots went 14-3, two of their losses were to Rex Ryan and the New York Jets, who then possessed one of the best pass defenses in the league. The team's only other defeat came at Cleveland, whose defensive coordinator was none other than Rob Ryan, Rex's twin brother and a man who shares many of the same defensive philosophies.

In the process, Mark Sanchez and Colt McCoy joined Kevin Kolb, Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger on the list of quarterbacks who have beaten the Patriots in recent years. Some of those are considered good players and others aren't. But they all had good defenses - even if only for a day.

As for the Niners, they rank sixth in the NFL in defensive passer rating while having allowed only 13 touchdown passes, just one behind Seattle and Baltimore for best in the league. With Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, San Francisco seems to have the necessary ingredient to give the Patriots a game, something the Texas were obviously unable to do on Monday.

Does that mean San Francisco will win? Hardly, particularly given the improvement in the New England pass defense in recent weeks. Through Week 10 against Buffalo, the Patriots ranked a dreadful 28th in the NFL in defensive passer rating. Since that time - a period that coincides with the arrival of Aqib Talib, the full-time move of Devin McCourty to safety and Bill Belichick's perceived involvement with the defense - they rank eighth.

In the modern NFL, in that brief span of time, most anyone will tell you that you can only travel that far through the air.

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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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