The win justifies the means in the NFL.
There is nothing deceiving or unscrupulous about the way the Patriots have jumped out to a 2-0 start. Playing unappealing offense isn’t a crime. The Patriots’ lack of offensive efficacy has only been an affront to our football sensibilities.
The Patriots have been so consistently good for so long that we grade them not solely on the result, but on how it was achieved. After years of winning with passing pyrotechnics and all but annexing the opposing team’s end zone, the Patriots have collected their two wins this season with an offense that has fizzled out like a birthday candle that stubbornly refuses to stay lit.
All the consternation about and parsing of the slow start for the Patriots’ revamped passing attack heading into Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has overshadowed an encouraging sign — the Patriots’ defense looking less like dependents and more like a dependable part of the team.
In the Google Earth view of the season, the unconvincing and uninspired start on offense might benefit the Patriots because it has lowered the defense’s margin of error and forced the oft-overlooked unit to take a leading role in determining New England’s football fate.
As coach Bill Belichick once said, “Stats are for losers.” A less offensively potent, more balanced Patriots team might not be as fun to watch, but it will have a better chance of winning the games that count. Those ones are played in January and February, not September.
How long have Patriots fans and pundits clamored for a defense that is capable of winning games when the offense goes stale? It seems like since before Jonny Gomes could grow facial hair.
The 30-points-per-game safety net the defense was operating with is gone. It is walking the tight rope without Tom Brady waiting to pad a potential fall.
So far, the Patriots haven’t taken a misstep, allowing 31 points, ranking eighth in the NFL in total defense by surrendering 302 yards per game and forcing six turnovers, while winning two games decided by a combined 5 points.
No one is declaring this defense the 1985 Chicago Bears, but the simple ability to stand on its own would be significant for the Patriots.
One of the reasons the Patriots have not lifted the Lombardi Trophy since the 2004 season has been a lack of balance — or equity — between offense and defense.
The defining image of the decline of the Patriots’ defense is Belichick ordering his team to allow the Giants to score the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI because it was the only way to get the ball back in Brady’s hands.
The team that had once won a Super Bowl by putting up a road block for the Greatest Show on Turf iteration of the St. Louis Rams had become a speed bump.
Obviously, there is a Vince Wilfork-sized caveat to the defense’s strong start.
The competition level has been a pair of rookie quarterbacks, Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel and Geno Smith of the New York Jets.
Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman isn’t a rookie, but like his 2009 quarterback classmate, Mark Sanchez, Freeman seems to have regressed. His completion percentage this season is 45.3, which looks like it belongs on an NBA stat sheet, not an NFL one.
Last season, the Patriots’ defense yielded similar totals in the first two games — 316 yards per game and a total of 33 points in the first two games — and then allowed 382 yards passing and 31 points to the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens in their third game on the way to ranking 29th in the league against the pass.
The true litmus test for the defense will be Sept. 29, when it takes on Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.
However, as much focus as there is on the changes to the Patriots’ offensive personnel, with a group of rookie wide receivers who have caught more of Brady’s wrath than his passes, the Patriots return largely the same defense they had last year, after shipping a fourth-round pick to Tampa for Aqib Talib Nov. 1.
The biggest addition for the Patriots is literally a big addition, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who is the penetrating lineman the Patriots have been looking for the last few years to pair with Wilfork.
Other than that, 10 of the 11 starters from last year’s 25th-ranked defense are back.
Talib, the fast-talking, confidence-oozing corner, has given the Patriots’ defense a swagger that was missing and a defensive backfield ballast that was sorely needed.
Talib is not Darrelle Revis or Richard Sherman. But it’s no coincidence that since his arrival in Foxborough the defense has improved and allowed more than 30 points just once in 11 games.
“He’s really got a lot of on-the-field presence, and his experience brings a lot to our defense and our defensive backfield group off the field,” Belichick said. “He’s just been a great addition to our team, glad we have him. We gave up a pretty good pick for him, so I’m sure it was a good deal both ways, but we’re glad we have him on our team.”
The Patriots’ offense is not going to be as out of synch or ineffective as it has been in the first two games for the entire season.
Simply getting the inimitable Rob Gronkowski, the only tight end in NFL history with three straight seasons of double-digit touchdowns, and his transcontinental catch radius back in the lineup will make a marked difference.
The best defense the Patriots will play this season won’t come when they discuss why they didn’t give Brady more seasoned weapons.
So, while you’re waiting to return to your regularly scheduled Patriots’ offense, take a moment to consider that in the long run less offense and more defense could be the means to a more meaningful end.