If Patriots don’t take home a win against the Broncos tonight, questions will continue about their recent postseason struggles

(Matt Slocum/AP)
By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / January 14, 2012
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It was the Patriots who ushered in the days of rolling rallies, banner years, and sweaty palm prints on championship trophies.

They were first to parade their championship mettle/metal through the streets on Duck Boats. With three championships in four seasons from 2001-2004, they turned Boston from the Hub of Hard Luck into the Hub of Hardware.

That’s why it is strange that the Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins all have won championships since the Patriots, who won 10 straight playoff games between the 2001 and 2005 seasons, and last lifted the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 6, 2005.

A team blessed with the hallowed and Hall-of-Fame-bound combination of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady has won more regular-season games than any team in the NFL since 2008 (48-16), but zero playoff games. Once a path to glory, the Patriot Way has become a postseason dead end.

As the 13-3 Patriots, the top seed in the AFC for the second straight season, prepare for their playoff game tonight at Gillette Stadium against the Denver Broncos, the question is whether the Patriots are built to win in the playoffs or have they become just a shiny regular-season model?

New England’s last playoff victory came in the 2007 AFC Championship game at a frigid and frosty Gillette Stadium on Jan. 20, 2008. Since then they’ve hit a cold spell (0-3), complete with consecutive disappointing and disheartening home playoff losses to the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Jets the last two seasons.

“We have a chip on our shoulder. We’re not satisfied with just the regular-season record,’’ said fourth-year linebacker Jerod Mayo, winless in the postseason as a Patriot. “We have to win games in the playoffs.’’

The players who won New England’s three titles are gridiron graybeards. There are only five who could face Denver - Brady, Matt Light, Kevin Faulk, Deion Branch, and Vince Wilfork, the only Patriots defender who has won a playoff game in a New England uniform.

A team that often communicates in clichés may have to defy one - defense wins championships - to regain its NFL eminence.

The Patriots’ defense ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed (411.1 per game) and 31st in pass defense (293.9 yards per game). Ten quarterbacks threw for more than 300 yards against them. They yielded a respectable 21.4 points per game, 15th of 32 teams.

Normally, those types of defensive numbers wouldn’t foster championship aspirations, but the Patriots, who equaled an NFL record by scoring 30 or more points in 12 games, could be the poster children for a paradigm shift in the NFL, which has seen a historic outpouring of offense.

A record 11,356 points were scored this season, and the average of 44.4 combined points per game was the highest since 1965. Games averaged a combined 693.7 net yards, the highest ever, and net passing yards per game also reached a high-water mark (459.4).

It is against that backdrop of unadulterated offense that the Patriots pursue a title.

Perhaps we’ve reached a point in the evolution of the NFL at which strong defense is optional for a championship team.

“I don’t believe that,’’ said Wilfork. “I think any champion is one with a great defense, no matter how you slice it because if you can’t stop anyone you can’t win. I don’t care how many points you put up. At the end of the day . . . you’ve got to stop someone. The game don’t go on forever. You have to be able to stop people at critical points in the game.

“Trust me, we don’t sit and say on defense, ‘Don’t worry about offense, guys. They’re going to score 40 points. Don’t worry. We’re OK.’ . . . We always say defensively we have to get our offense the ball. Our mind-set is to get Tom [Brady] and our guys on the field. The more they’re on the field, the better we are as a team. But I’m a defensive guy. I’m always going to stick behind that. You go look up any defenses, any champion at whatever level, and see what type of defense they had and see did it matter.’’

At least one AFC personnel evaluator thinks the Patriots have a championship-caliber team because their most important defensive number is 12 - Brady’s uniform number.

“You can have a horrible defense if you have a quarterback like that,’’ said an AFC personnel evaluator. “You can justify it any way you want. Those quarterbacks [Brady, New Orleans’s Drew Brees and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers] make that defense a lot better because they know you can outscore those teams. They’ve had success so far. I don’t see what would change in the playoffs.

“Right now they’re showing they got a championship team. If it was just go out and play defense it would be a big question mark. But it’s offense, defense, and special teams. How can you argue? They’re 13-3 and got the No. 1 seed.’’

It might be time to redefine what constitutes championship defense.

We’re a long way from Pittsburgh’s famed Steel Curtain or the 1985 Chicago Bears, and even numbers from five years ago appear dated.

The 2006 Indianapolis Colts, often cited as a team that won a championship with a shaky defense, ranked 21st that season, allowing 332.2 yards per game. That would’ve made them a top 10 defense this season. Three Super Bowl favorites, the Saints, Patriots and Packers, ranked 30th, 31st, and 32d, respectively, in pass defense.

“I think it’s too early to tell, to say that’s the shift now in our league, and that defense is less important than it used to be,’’ said a veteran NFC general manager. “I think when you look at the Patriots, Saints, Green Bay, I think all of those teams are capable of playing well enough to win a championship.’’

The recent Super Bowl-winners most often referenced as proof the Patriots can win are the ’06 Colts and the 2009 Saints. The Colts were 23d in scoring defense. The Saints were 25th in total defense and 20th in scoring defense.

However, both of those teams outperformed their reputations defensively in the postseason and counted pass defense as a strength, not a weakness. The Colts ranked second in pass defense, the Saints seventh.

The ’06 Colts, buoyed by the return of safety Bob Sanders, held their playoff opponents to 126, 244, 319, and 265 total yards. The only team to top 20 points against them was the Patriots, who lost, 38-34, in the AFC title game and benefited from an Asante Samuel interception return for a touchdown.

The ’09 Saints held quarterbacks Kurt Warner (Cardinals), Brett Favre (Vikings), and Peyton Manning (Colts, in Super Bowl XLIV) to 14, 28, and 17 points, respectively, on their way to a championship. Clutch interceptions allowed them to win the NFC title game and Super Bowl. Such plays were not out of character for the Saints, who were second in the NFL in takeaways and picked off 26 passes, while allowing 15 TD passes.

Patriots fans once derided the Colts for being paper champions. Indianapolis piled up wins, points, passing yards, and offensive records (sound familiar?) while compiling an NFL-best 48-16 regular-season record from 2002-05. But they went 3-4 in the playoffs and never reached a Super Bowl, twice eliminated by the Patriots.

If the Patriots don’t reach Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, they risk being tagged with the same label as their former foils, a football fireworks show that fizzles at the end.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at

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