It’s defense that will tell if they stand a chance
FOXBOROUGH — From all appearances, things are going well for the Patriots.
At 9-2 they are tied for the best record in the NFL, and they’re in the midst of an 11-day break to rest up for the stretch drive.
They’ve knocked off the Ravens, Steelers, and Colts, who are tied for first in their divisions. They took care of the Chargers, who are one game out in the AFC West.
As far as AFC playoff contenders, the Jets are the only team the Patriots have fallen against. And New England can make up for that Monday night at Gillette Stadium, where Tom Brady hasn’t lost a regular-season game since 2006 (against the Jets, by the way).
The Patriots lead the league in points (334), and are on pace to have the second-highest-scoring team in franchise history behind the 2007 record breakers. FootballOutsiders.com says the Patriots’ offense through Week 11 — before Brady’s “perfect’’ performance against the Lions on Thanksgiving — was the third-best all time behind the ’07 team and the ’04 Colts.
Well, the Patriots better not stop scoring. Ever. The fate of the season could depend on it.
It’s one thing to look at statistics one or two months into the season. Those can be mere snapshots, affected by circumstances.
Eleven games, though, that’s almost an oil painting.
And there’s no other way around it: the Patriots’ defense this season has been bad.
New England has allowed opponents to convert 50.7 percent of their third downs. No team in recent years has allowed more than 48 percent. At their current pace, the Patriots would surpass the 1995 Browns — coincidentally coached by Bill Belichick in his final season (5-11) before being fired — as being the worst third-down defense in recent league history (49.6 percent).
In Belichick’s previous 26 seasons as a head coach or defensive coordinator, seven of his teams allowed a third-down conversion rate of more than 40 percent. Only one of those teams, the ’05 Patriots (42 percent), made the playoffs, at 10-6. They lost in the second round.
The current Patriots are poor on third down across the board.
According to STATS, LLC., the Patriots are worst in the league on third downs of 10 yards or more (36.1 percent) and third-and-longs (more than 6 yards) at 37.1 percent. New England is 25th at third and 4-6 yards (25th at 48.6 percent), and 29th on third and short (68.6).
There’s an obvious correlation between defensive third-down conversion and pass defense — most teams pass on third downs — and the Patriots also have a ton of work to do there.
Opposing quarterbacks have completed 68.3 percent of their passes. If that holds up, it would be the fourth-worst mark in the NFL since at least 1950, according to FootballOutsiders.com.
For comparison’s sake, Brady’s career-best completion percentage was in ’07 at 68.9 percent. And Belichick’s ’95 Browns defense allowed 62.8 percent.
The Patriots allowed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to complete 70 percent of his passes (21 of 30) in the first matchup this season — the second-highest mark of his young career (76.5 percent vs. Carolina last season).
In 26 career starts, Sanchez has completed more than 60 percent of his passes just five times.
And the Patriots have allowed 24.2 points per game to rank 22d. Every team worse than the Patriots in that category has a losing record.
So, yes, 11 games into the season, things do not look good for the Patriots defense. But it doesn’t mean New England is headed for a death sentence.
For one, there has been some improvement.
While their overall third-down conversion rate has gone up from 48.8 percent after six games, the Patriots are getting better at longer yardages. They’ve gone from 40 percent on third and 10-plus yards and 42.4 on third and 6-plus, to 36.1 and 37.1, respectively. So the young secondary is making some progress.
And the second thing is that teams can win — and win big — with poor pass defense.
The ’06 Colts are the shining example. Their 45.2 third-down percentage is the worst of any Super Bowl team since the arrival of the salary cap in 1994. And the Colts won the Super Bowl.
The 1995 Cowboys were third at 44.9 and they won the Super Bowl.
Last year’s Colts were second at 45 and lost to the Saints despite holding them to 3 of 9 on third downs in the Super Bowl — a marked improvement from the regular season.
In a lot of ways, the Patriots, at least this season, have morphed into the Colts, with Brady swapping roles with Peyton Manning.
For years the Colts made do with a below-average — although opportunistic — defense thanks to the superior play of Manning.
The Patriots are tied for second with a plus-11 turnover ratio, and tied for fourth with 15 interceptions. They are also 13th in red zone defensive third-down stops (36.8 percent).
So it’s not a lost cause. The Patriots are doing some things. But they’ll likely have to do more, both in the pass rush and coverage.
“They don’t hit the quarterback enough and don’t cover well enough in the back,’’ said an AFC personnel executive.
“But here’s the thing: nobody is even close to a complete team in this league. Everybody has problems. So if you have a guy like Brady, you have to like your chances.’’
The Ravens are also having trouble on defense and quarterback Joe Flacco has not proved himself as a difference maker. The Steelers and Colts both have huge problems on the offensive line. No one should believe in the Chargers until quarterback Philip Rivers and coach Norv Turner prove they won’t disappoint in the playoffs. The Chiefs have played a soft schedule.
The Jets are probably the closest to being a complete team, but if you can make the Jets have to rely on Sanchez — something the Patriots did not do the first time around — he hasn’t shown he can carry a team.
Brady has. All things considered, this may be his finest season.
“He’s been lights out,’’ an NFC personnel executive said. “They’ll be favored in every game with him.’’
But it would help if the defense does just a little bit more.
The Colts may have won one Super Bowl being poor on third downs, but they made quick exits in ’08 and ’07 when they were 31st and 30th.
And while five of the 10 worst pass defenses in league history (67.3 completion percentage or more) have made the playoffs, none has come close to reaching the Super Bowl.
So there is work to be done if the Patriots want to dream big.
“I’ve seen signs that the pass rush is coming around — but those weren’t very good lines,’’ said the AFC executive about the Steelers, Colts, and Lions. “It will be interesting to see how they do against a good line. The last one [the Patriots] faced, the Browns, pretty much had their way with them. The Jets and Browns are comparable I would say. You gotta make the quarterback beat you.’’
Quarterbacks have taken advantage of the Patriots too often this year.
It’s time they make a stand — for the season.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.