Apparently, giving the Patriots defense credit where credit is due is about as difficult as scoring against them.
It feels like hardly anyone noticed that one of the most pertinent questions of the season — whether the Patriots defense could duplicate its success when confronted by a potent offense replete with a franchise quarterback? — was answered emphatically on Sunday. The Patriots punched their ticket to Super Bowl LI against the Atlanta Falcons and delivered a death blow to the proclamations that they’re overrated.
Virtually the entire season there has been a debate about whether the Patriots were actually as good as their defensive points per game ranking or merely the beneficiaries of a favorable schedule with mostly forgettable quarterbacks. By holding Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers to 17 points in the AFC Championship game, the defense proved its parsimony translates to a top 10 offense and a decorated passer. But their revelatory statement got relegated to the background by the bright lights of another brilliant Tom Brady postseason performance.
It’s like the Patriots defense dropped the mic, but no one noticed they were singing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in the first place.
It’s only fair that those who doubted the defense earlier in the season due to questionable competition (raising hand) recognize their resounding rebuttal against a Pittsburgh team with Big Ben, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell (well, at least for a quarter). You might not enjoy the Patriots’ style, but you can’t deny their substance. They’re elite, as elite as any defense that has taken the field in the NFL this season.
No one is going to compare this New England defense with the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. It doesn’t have the star power or name recognition of the Patriots’ last Super Bowl-worthy defense, the 2014 unit featuring Darrelle Revis and Vince Wilfork. It’s a few Bruschis, Vrabels, Seymours, Laws, McGinests, and Harrisons short of the 2003 defense, the best of the Belichick era. It lacks the flash and in-your-face bravado of established championship defenses in Denver and Seattle. But the Patriots defenders are interested in preventing points, not style points.
Some of the best defense the Patriots have played this season has been defending the legitimacy of their performance.
“We try not to focus too much on the media, but we hear it, it’s everywhere,” said safety Duron Harmon. “We heard that we weren’t tested all year.”
Being a Patriots defender isn’t easy. An offense led by arguably (in a few holdout precincts) the greatest quarterback of all-time casts a rather large shadow. All-time great vs. bend-but-don’t-break is not a comparison the Patriots defenders are going to win often.
But there is no denying that the Patriots defense has outplayed the offense, both in the playoffs and during the course of the team’s nine-game winning streak.
Since getting sliced and diced by Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in a 31-24 Sunday night loss, the Patriots’ defense has allowed 13.2 points per game. Only one team has topped 20 points during that time, the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens needed back-to-back special teams fumbles to help reach that mark on Dec. 12. Their two touchdown drives went a total of 25 yards combined, thanks to a fumbled punt by Cyrus Jones and a fumbled kickoff by Matthew Slater.
No team has topped 400 yards of offense against them since the Seahawks rolled up 420 yards. The most yards the Patriots have surrendered since is the 368 Pittsburgh put up on Sunday, 86 of which came in the fourth quarter when the outcome was decided.
One of the elements of the Super Bowl is that every aspect of the game becomes magnified, so if the Patriots defense puts up its usual numbers and shuts down the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, it can’t be ignored.
The Falcons, led by Boston College’s Matt Ryan, boast the NFL’s most prolific offense (33.8 points per game). There are already expectations that this could be the highest-scoring Super Bowl in history. That this is going to be the “offense wins championships” Super Bowl — not if the Patriots No. 1-ranked scoring defense (15.6 points per game) has anything to say about it.
With the propitiousness bestowed on the Patriots, Atlanta’s Julio Jones will succumb to his turf toe in the first quarter, but if that doesn’t happen this will be the toughest test of the season for the underappreciated defense.
Ryan is the presumptive league MVP after a season in which he passed for nearly 5,000 yards, completed 69.9 percent of his passes, and threw 38 touchdowns against just seven interceptions.
The Falcons have topped 40 points six times this season, including their 44-21 dismantling of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. In the NFC title game, Atlanta racked up a playoff franchise record 493 yards. Atlanta has scored 30 points in six straight games, including the playoffs.
The Falcons have the elements to duplicate the formula that Seattle used to give the Patriots trouble. They have No. 2 and No. 3 receivers who can make plays in Mohamed Sanu and Cleveland castoff Taylor Gabriel. They have running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. They also have coaching lineage and run-game roots that have tripped up Belichick defenses in the past. Atlanta’s offensive coordinator is Kyle Shanahan, son of former Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
If the Patriots are going to win Super Bowl LI, the defense won’t just be part of Brady’s supporting cast. It will play a starring role.
“I practice against those guys every day, and it’s hard to complete passes,” Brady said Sunday. “I know if I can complete them against our defense then we should be fine on Sunday. Our guys do such a great job in the pass game . . . and they’ve got a lot of great scheme stuff. We’ve got a good defense.”
There’s no more arguing that.