FOXBOROUGH — There are a number of points that football coaches and players emphasize every week. Ball security. Knowing the opponent. Individual assignments coming together for a team goal.
Turnovers also are emphasized every week. To the Patriots’ defense, which had gone more than two games without forcing one, takeaways became overemphasized prior to the game at Baltimore.
All that attention must have worked, because turnovers played a big role in the Patriots’ 41-7 win over the Ravens Sunday, a day in which they became AFC East champions for the fifth straight season. The defense picked off Ravens quarterbacks three times, and also recovered a fumble.
Two of the takeaways were returned for touchdowns, a fumble recovery by Chandler Jones, and an interception from Tavon Wilson. The first two turnovers led to 10 points.
“We emphasize, but then we had to overemphasize, I guess, because we went a few weeks without, and guys knew the implications of the game,” said cornerback Kyle Arrington. “I’m not saying guys gave more effort than previous weeks, but it was all on the line and we were able to get some.”
The Patriots have intercepted 17 passes this season and recovered 12 fumbles. With only 19 giveaways, their plus-10 turnover margin is tied for sixth in the NFL.
A positive turnover differential has been synonymous with the Patriots in recent seasons. They led the league in 2012 at plus-25, and also led the league in 2010 at plus-28. Over the past four seasons, New England’s turnover margin stands at plus-80. That’s a staggering advantage.
“That’s the best way to play defense, and we have to utilize that each and every week,” said defensive lineman Andre Carter. “Turnovers win games, it can keep pressure off the offense, and at times keep pressure off us.”
After an interception by Logan Ryan early in the second quarter against Houston Dec. 1, the defense hit a drought. No turnovers forced against Cleveland, then none at Miami. The four takeaways against the Ravens matched a season high for the Patriots, who also forced the Broncos into four turnovers on Nov. 24.
“That was huge, obviously any time you can get turnovers like that in a game, and get turnovers and score, like we did, it really can kind of take off and you can get those type of outcomes,” said safety Steve Gregory. “It’s something that we work on, every week, something that we’ve been working on the whole season. We had a little stretch there where we didn’t really get any for a while, [so] it was good to get back out there and get some of that stuff going. Hopefully we can continue that.”
Plenty of material
Having played the Bills in the season opener, there are now 14 additional games to study when the Patriots prepare to face them again in Sunday’s regular-season finale. That makes for a large case file, with Bill Belichick estimating that there’s “a couple thousand” plays to watch from the Bills’ offense, even though there will only be time for 60 to 70 plays at Gillette Stadium.
Playing a division opponent brings a certain level of familiarity. That can be good and bad.
“We have a lot of information. We’ll have to try to put our chips on certain numbers and play the percentages and know that there’s also other things that they can do and they have done that we can’t ignore, but we can’t prepare for everything. We just have to wait and see how the game plays out,” Belichick said.
One unknown is who will get the start at quarterback for the Bills. They’ve started three this season, but rookie E.J. Manuel will get the nod if he’s healthy enough to go. Manuel has started 10 games, but missed last week’s 19-0 win over Miami with a knee injury. Whoever gets the call, Belichick said the Patriots will need to be ready for the speed in which the Buffalo offense likes to operate.
“The thing that I’d say is a little bit different about them is just their tempo. Like Baltimore was a no-huddle team, but they weren’t a fast no-huddle team. Buffalo is much more of a fast no-huddle team, similar to what we saw in training camp against Philadelphia,” Belichick said. “That’s not the easiest thing to simulate in practice, because sometimes when you’re running their plays, it’s hard for your offense who is running their plays to do it at the tempo that they do it at. That’s not the easiest thing to simulate.”
Marquice Cole released again
There are four defensive backs listed on the Patriots’ injury report, but it was a healthy one — cornerback Marquice Cole — who was released Thursday. Cole played in 13 of the team’s first 15 games, and had one interception, a ball that was tipped by Devin McCourty and quite possibly was one of the Patriots’ best defensive plays of the season. Cole has been through this before; he was released Sept. 1, then re-signed a day later. He played in three games, then was released again Sept. 29, the day of the game at Atlanta. Cole was re-signed Oct. 1, released Oct. 4 — missing the game at Cincinnati — then re-signed on Oct. 7, his most recent roster transaction until Thursday . . . Defensive end Rob Ninkovich was added to the practice participation report Thursday with an ankle injury. Ninkovich was limited in the outdoor workout, the only change from Wednesday to the team’s injury report. It’s the first time Ninkovich had been on the report since Oct. 25, two days before the Miami game, when he was listed with a groin injury. He has played in all 15 games, and is second on the team with seven sacks, and third with 89 tackles. The same two players missed Thursday’s practice. Receiver Josh Boyce has been out with an ankle injury, and McCourty sustained a concussion during the win at Baltimore.