We know the Patriots own December. They have the NFL’s best record in the month since 2000 (53-9). But seizing the day when the calendar turns to January or February, home of Super Bowl Sunday, has proven more difficult the last decade.
Watching the Patriots win their customary dozen or more games, maintain their monopoly on the AFC East, and march toward a first-round bye feels different this year, though.
Pro football’s winter is coming and this time the Patriots are ready for harsher playing conditions because they have more layers. They have a defense that can freeze out the opposition. It’s the most talented one to grace Fort Foxborough since 2007, which happens to be the last time Glendale, Ariz., site of this season’s Super Bowl, hosted the Roman Numeral Rumble.
It was hard to watch the Patriots’ 41-13 demolition of the Miami Dolphins on Sunday and not come away buoyed by what the Patriots’ defense looks like with a healthy Chandler Jones jacking up quarterbacks, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower buzzing around like bees, and Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Co. turning Foxborough into a no-fly zone.
For the second straight week, the Patriots shut out their opponent in the second half and allowed only one offensive touchdown. Miami was held to 113 yards in the second half. The week before, the Patriots held the San Diego Chargers to 100 yards in the second half.
No team has scored more than two offensive touchdowns on the Patriots since the Denver Broncos Nov. 2.
Quarterback Tom Brady did his contractual interview with “Dennis & Callahan” on WEEI on Monday and said: “Our defense is playing as well as I can ever remember. They really set the tone for us the last bunch of weeks.”
That sound you heard was the weight of an entire Super Bowl run being lifted off of TB12’s shoulders.
The Patriots didn’t get to this point defensively because coach Bill Belichick is dusting off game plans from the 1990 New York Giants. The Patriots simply have better players than they have since ’07.
(The ’07 defense was overshadowed and underrated because of the Patriots’ record-setting offense that season, but it allowed 288.3 yards per game, the lowest total for the Patriots since 1979, and ranked second in the NFL in sacks with 47.)
None of this nonsense that was spouted at the Super Bowl in New York about winning with the bottom third of the roster. The Patriots’ defense has a championship patina again because it is fused by top-end talents such as Jones, Revis, Vince Wilfork, and safety Devin McCourty.
You can’t win on the defense the way the Patriots did in the aughts, banging around and bumping into receivers like passengers jostling for position on an MBTA train. The rules don’t allow it.
A lot of the nuance has been sapped from pass defense by the NFL’s For Fantasy Football Only rulebook.
Minus the contact, any of the upper-echelon passers will pick apart zone defenses if they see a steady diet of them, unless you’re Seattle and have safety Earl Thomas covering more ground than Google Earth in Cover 3. Zone defenses are the ones that allow you to hide and help the Earthwind Morelands and Hank Poteats.
The best pass defenses stop teams now because they can create pressure and disrupt the timing of quarterbacks and receivers with man-to-man defense. That type of defense requires cornerbacks who can play it.
The Patriots didn’t have those in 2011, when they adjusted their scheme to the current realities of the NFL, and finished 31st in the NFL in total defense and pass defense.
That defensive backfield was so threadbare that wide receiver Julian Edelman defended passes instead of catching them. They acquired a man-to-man corner during the 2012 season in Aqib Talib.
Now, they have the best man-to-man corner on the planet in Revis and a menacing, mauling secondary sidekick for him in Browner.
They’re not covering up deficiencies. They’re just covering, period. The Patriots are sixth in the NFL in opponent completion percentage (59 percent). Indianapolis is fifth at 58.7, but their division is chock full of teams with a blank space at quarterback.
Before Ryan Tannehill’s spurious 346 yards Sunday, the only quarterbacks that had passed for 300 yards on the Patriots this season were Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Andrew Luck.
Manning and Luck both lost and completed fewer than 60 percent of their passes.
Give Belichick lemons, and he’ll make lemonade. Give him champagne, and he’ll turn it into Dom Perignon.
Even when teams know how the Patriots are going to play, they’re still having a hard time escaping the Hoodie’s hired guns.
“The Patriots are going to play their style irrelevant to what other teams do or what we do,” said Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace. “They are going to play their type of football. They came out and played man-to-man until they went up in the game, and that is when they went to Cover 2 a lot.
“But most of the time they played man-to-man in the first half. That’s what they do. That’s what they do every single game. I don’t see any reason why they would change it for us.”
Adding Jones, who had missed the previous six games with a hip injury, back into the mix is the final piece of a playoff-run puzzle. Jones is a dynamic pass rusher who can turn even the best offensive tackles into turnstiles.
He did that to Miami’s Ja’Wuan James in the fourth quarter with a pass-rushing pièce de résistance.
Football is a complicated game, but defense in the NFL is pretty simple.
It’s skill over scheme.
The Patriots have enough of the former to keep the team from reaching its end zone until February.