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Patriots defense has been impressive — but now the schedule gets real

The Patriots held the Jets to just 103 total yards last Sunday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Patriots defense doesn’t have a catchy nickname this season, but it has been really fun to watch.

Matthew Judon has been a menace. The secondary has been outstanding. The Patriots are No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed. They have the fifth-most takeaways. They pitched a shutout against the No. 1 scoring offense. They embarrassed young quarterbacks.

Without the defense carrying the load, there is no way the team would be 6-4 and sitting with the No. 6 seed in the AFC entering Thursday’s game at Minnesota.

“They have been one of the top defenses in football over the last six or seven games, and they showed why today,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said Sunday after his team gained just 2 yards in the second half.

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Except it feels like we’ve seen this movie before …

Oh, that’s right. The Patriots defense had the same exact start in 2021. It dominated weak quarterbacks over the first three months of the season, piling up some of the best stats in the league and racing out to a 9-4 record. The Patriots broke Zach Wilson, beat down Baker Mayfield, and shut out the Falcons.

But the schedule toughened in December and January, as the Patriots started facing playoff contenders and better quarterbacks. And the defense fell apart. It fell to 30th in points allowed, stopped sacking the quarterback, stopped forcing turnovers, and couldn’t make the Bills to punt even once in two games. The Patriots lost four of their last five, ending with a blowout loss in the playoffs.

Last year’s collapse is why we should pause before speaking too highly of this year’s defense. The Patriots have been outstanding so far, but like last year, the schedule has been soft up front and gets demanding at the end.

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The Patriots’ six wins have come against quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky, Jared Goff, Jacoby Brissett, Sam Ehlinger, and Wilson (twice). Goff and the Lions have had a nice season, though they score most of their points at home. Otherwise, the Patriots have beaten up on the dregs of the league, and have lost to the four “real” quarterbacks they have faced: Tua Tagovailoa, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, and Justin Fields.

So far, the Patriots have feasted on subpar quarterbacks like Zach Wilson.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

And the days of facing backup quarterbacks are likely over, starting Thursday with Kirk Cousins. The remaining schedule, assuming everyone gets/stays healthy, is a murderer’s row of passers and dynamic offenses: Josh Allen (twice), Kyler Murray, Derek Carr, Joe Burrow, and Tagovailoa. The Patriots’ remaining strength of schedule is .592, fourth-highest in the NFL.

This is not to say the Patriots defense hasn’t been excellent. The statistics jump off the page, and the individual performances have been impressive:

▪ The Patriots are top-six in points allowed (17.8 per game), total yards, sacks, takeaways, red zone defense, yards per play, and points per drive. They have allowed the fewest 10-play drives in the NFL (12 out of 115). And the fewest first downs (16.5 per game). The last two weeks, the Patriots allowed 121 total yards to the Colts and 103 yards to the Jets — the lowest and fourth-lowest totals in the Bill Belichick era (405 games).

▪ The run defense has been about average at 12th in yards allowed, 16th in average carry (4.5 yards), and, alarmingly, the fewest run-stuffs in the league (13). The numbers are somewhat understandable, given that Lawrence Guy has missed three games and Christian Barmore four and counting.

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Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley (team-high 64 tackles) has been a force up front, and Deatrich Wise (37 tackles) is more involved, just 12 tackles away from his career high. But the Patriots have struggled against two running quarterbacks, with Jackson going for 107 yards and combining for five touchdowns in a Ravens win, and Fields running for 82 yards and a touchdown in a shocking 33-14 win for the Bears.

▪ But the pass rush has been phenomenal. The Patriots’ 36 sacks are second in the NFL behind the Cowboys’ 42 and are the second-most through 10 games in the Belichick era (37 in 2019). The Patriots get a sack on 10 percent of passing plays, also second in the NFL behind the Cowboys.

Judon’s 13½ sacks are a career high and lead the NFL by 2½. The Patriots are pacing Judon a bit this year, playing him 47 snaps per game compared with 51.6 last year.

Wise’s 6½ sacks are also a career high. The Patriots don’t have the best one-on-one pass rushers (other than Judon), but they are scheming up a great rush and getting contributions from everywhere, as 12 players have at least one sack.

▪ The secondary has been fantastic despite losing Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson in the last couple of years. The sack numbers are thriving arguably because the secondary is covering so well.

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The passer rating of 74.0 for Patriots opponents is second-lowest in the NFL. The opposing completion percentage of 55.7 is the lowest. The Patriots have allowed just one 300-yard passer — Wilson, believe it or not, who threw for 355 mostly garbage yards in a Week 8 loss. They have allowed just two 100-yard receivers — the Packers’ Allen Lazard (116) and the Jets’ Garrett Wilson (115).

Devin McCourty is one of four members of the Patriots' defense with at least two interceptions.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Patriots are ball-hawking as well as ever. They are tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 interceptions. They are one of three teams (Steelers and Jets) to have four players with multiple interceptions (Devin McCourty, Jalen Mills, Jack Jones, Jonathan Jones).

And the Patriots have been called for just two defensive pass interference penalties all season, and no illegal contact fouls.

Mills, signed in 2021, has fulfilled his role as a steady outside cornerback. The Patriots have gotten solid contributions from youngsters Jack Jones and Myles Bryant. Seventh-year cornerback Jonathan Jones has shown remarkable development from special teams contributor to slot corner to now a dynamic starting outside cornerback. Safeties McCourty and Adrian Phillips are steady and versatile as ever, and Kyle Dugger has been a physical force in run coverage.

But none of it will matter if the Patriots don’t finish the season strongly. Everyone saw what happened last year after Thanksgiving. Nobody wants to watch a repeat.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.