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Alex Speier

Can Patriots continue to keep opponents off scoreboard?

Steelers quarterback Landry Jones passed for 281 yards vs. the Patriots, but only one touchdown.Barry Chin/Globe staff

It’s a bottom-line business. There are no style points for the manner in which a team stops its opponent from scoring.

Ultimately, the measure of an NFL defense is whether or not it keeps points off the board – and more specifically, enough points off the board so that its team can outscore the opposition.

By those measures, the first seven games of the 2016 season have gone swimmingly for the Patriots. They’ve allowed just 15.3 points per game, fourth fewest in the league, en route to a 6-1 start. Indeed, the Patriots are just the 39th team since the start of the 2006 season to permit 16 or fewer points per game through their first seven games of the year.

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That said, as Christopher L Gasper writes, the optics of the Patriots defense have suggested something more tenuous than their bottom line. Opponents – including a Steelers offense led by backup quarterback Landry Jones on Sunday – have moved the ball freely against New England.

Of the 38 teams besides this year’s Patriots to allow 16 or fewer points per game through their first seven games, none has allowed as many yards per game as the Patriots, against whom opponents have racked up an average of 351 yards.

What to make of a group that has enjoyed bottom-line success but without showing the sort of complete dominance that characterizes truly elite defenses?

In the last 10 seasons, there were 10 teams that allowed 16 or fewer points per game while yielding 300 or more yards per game through their first seven games.

Of those teams, on average, the group allowed roughly the same amount of total yards in the second half as the first half, with a collective 9 percent improvement in yards allowed over the final nine contests.

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Six teams allowed fewer yards per game over their final nine contests of the season than they did in the first seven. Only one, the 2013 Chiefs, saw a spike in yards allowed as part of a meltdown of their overall defensive performance.

What lies ahead?
Teams that permitted 16 or fewer points and 300 or more yards per game through 7 games, 2006-16
Team PPG 1st 7 PPG Last 9 Change Playoffs
2013 Chiefs 11.6 24.9 115% Wild card round
2013 Panthers 13.7 16.1 17% Divisional round
2012 Bears 14.3 19.7 38% Missed
2010 Steelers 14.6 14.4 -1% Lost Super Bowl
2014 Ravens 14.9 22 48% Divisional round
2011 49ers 15.3 13.6 -11% Conference final
2007 Seahawks 15.4 20.3 32% Divisional round
2007 Jaguars 15.7 21.6 37% Divisional round
2010 Jets 15.7 21.6 37% Conference final
2007 Buccaneers 15.7 17.8 13% Wild card round
SOURCE: pro-football-reference.com

Nonetheless, even with fewer yards allowed, the clear majority of those teams allowed more points over the final nine games of the year. Eight of 10 teams allowed more points over the final nine games than they did through the first seven, with the complete group yielding an average of 31 percent more points down the stretch than they did through the first seven games.

In other words, based on this small sample of somewhat comparable defenses, the Patriots look like a team for whom an increase to 20 points allowed per game going forward wouldn’t be a shock.

Of course, that outlook is based on NFL norms. What about the Patriots under Bill Belichick? In the previous 10 years, Patriots defenses that were excellent through seven games tended to give up more points over the remainder of the season.

Six New England defenses allowed fewer than 20 points per game through their first seven games; of those, five yielded more points per game over their final nine contests. Four of the past 10 Patriots defenses allowed at least 20 points a contest through their first seven games; of those, all saw improvement over their last nine games.

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There’s a regression to the mean that takes place. Patriots defenses that start well tend to slide a bit over the latter half of their schedule, while defenses that get off to poor starts improve.

As a whole, then, the eye test and precedent suggest that the Patriots likely will have a harder time limiting opponents’ scoring totals going forward than they have to date. Still, given that the Patriots have been among the stingiest scoring defenses in the NFL to this point, it’s a group that can remain among the league’s better units even with some degree of slippage.

There are, after all, just nine teams to this point that have allowed as few as 20 points per game. If the Patriots regress to such a level, it likely would be good enough to carry them to a familiar place as one of the top seeds in the AFC.

Video: Thoughts on Patriots-Steelers

Photos from the game

Box score: Patriots 27, Steelers 16


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.