FOXBOROUGH — The tone was set back in Week 1 in Tennessee, over a four-play span in a win over the Titans.
On the second play of the second quarter, Patriots rookie safety Tavon Wilson intercepted a pass in the end zone. Barely three minutes later, on the third play of Tennessee’s next drive, quarterback Jake Locker was stripped of the ball by rookie defensive end Chandler Jones, and the fumble was recovered by rookie linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who returned it 6 yards for a touchdown.
With that, a pattern had been established. The 2012 Patriots were going to force turnovers, and chances were good that the change in possession would result in points. Either immediately, in the form of Hightower’s touchdown, or eventually, after the league’s top-rated offense got done capitalizing on the gift.
The ability of the Patriots to not only force turnovers, but score as a result of them, has become one of the team’s most impressive and important traits this season. That’s been evident during the current five-game winning streak, which the Patriots will bring to Miami for Sunday’s game, needing a win to clinch their fourth straight AFC East title.
Over the course of the win streak — bookended with games against the Jets — the Patriots have forced 16 turnovers. They’ve cashed in with touchdowns nine times — and that’s not counting a Mark Sanchez fumble out of the end zone for a safety.
It culminated on Thanksgiving night against the Jets: Five turnovers forced, five touchdowns scored as a result.
“We had a lot of turnovers earlier in the year and we didn’t get enough point production out of those turnovers,” coach Bill Belichick said. “The past few weeks, that number has changed more in our favor where the turnovers have been converted into points, and in a lot of cases, touchdowns.”
The Patriots have scored a league-best 407 points through 11 games, and are on pace for 592, which would break the NFL record, held by the 2007 Patriots (589). More than one-fourth of those 407 points so far — 107 — have come after turnovers.
It helps when the defense or special teams can take it into the end zone themselves; the Patriots have four defensive touchdowns on the season (the fumble return by Hightower, another by Steve Gregory, and interception returns by Alfonzo Dennard and Aqib Talib), and one special teams touchdown off a turnover, when Julian Edelman returned a fumbled kickoff return against the Jets.
Much more likely, though, is a turnover creating a short field for quarterback Tom Brady and the offense. Give them that, and they know what to do with it.
“Complementary football is always important for us, and I think that’s what happens: You make a great play on defense, and — bam — you capitalize on it with points,” Brady said. “To go back out there [following a turnover] in three plays and kick it back to them or turn it back over to them is bad football.
“But when you can complement each other and the offense scores a touchdown, you kick the ball down and stop them inside the 20 with your great special teams play, then the defense can go three and out, and they punt it back to you, with a good punt return? That’s how you want to play football.
“Certainly scoring points off turnovers is a big part of that, too, and I’m glad we’ve been able to do it.”
Takeaways and giveaways are generally a solid indicator of a team’s season. No team has fewer giveaways than the Patriots’ eight; only the Bears, with 33, have more takeaways than the Patriots’ 32 (14 interceptions, 18 fumble recoveries). New England’s plus-24 turnover differential is the best in the league — by far.
“We just do a great job of locating where the ball is at and putting pressure on it,” said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who has five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. “That’s the advantage of being on defense: You can have that reckless mentality toward just getting the ball out, knowing that you’ve got guys around you that are going to back you up.”
And handing the ball over to the offense with a turnover?
“Any time that they touch the ball, they do something with it,” Ninkovich said.
Belichick pointed to the Thanksgiving game as “Exhibit A” in how important turnovers — and what you do after forcing them — can become game-changers. The Patriots scored 35 second-quarter points, 28 of which directly followed Jets turnovers.
Some came quickly: A fumble deep in Patriots territory was turned into an 83-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Shane Vereen on the next play. A fumble by Mark Sanchez two plays later was returned by Gregory for a touchdown, and Edelman returned yet another fumble for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff. Battle to blowout, in less than a minute.
“Turnovers are a huge part of the game, and other than points, they’re probably statistically the highest correlation to winning,” Belichick said. “You have to take advantage of those opportunities, to turn them into points. When it happens that fast, it really can swing the momentum in a hurry.”
Miami starts a rookie (Ryan Tannehill) at quarterback, and the Dolphins have struggled with turnovers this season, owning a minus-10 differential. Look for the Patriots to apply plenty of pressure and seek out those game-changing opportunities through turnovers. It’s worked well so far.
“When the defense creates a turnover, or the special teams creates a turnover . . . the offense gets a tremendous amount of energy,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “We always take the field with the mind-set that we want to score touchdowns, and maybe there’s a little extra incentive to follow through on a great defensive series that resulted in a turnover with 6 points.
“Our guys have really tried to respond to those quick changes where all of a sudden we’re on defense and then — bang — we’re on offense right away with great field position. [We’re] really trying to cap off those turnovers with scores.”