The Patriots’ defense will enter Super Bowl LII riding an unprecedented streak, something the team had never accomplished in 58 seasons of existence:
Four straight games without creating a turnover.
“What’s our record?” defensive captain Devin McCourty responded. “That’s the only thing I go by.”
Fair enough. The Patriots have won all four games despite not creating a turnover, defeating the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season, and the Titans and Jaguars in the playoffs.
But the turnover-less streak is even more pronounced. The Patriots have created just one takeaway in their last six games — Duron Harmon’s game-clinching interception against the Steelers.
That’s it. No other interceptions, strip-sacks, or forced fumbles. The Patriots were minus-4 in turnover differential over those six games.
The Patriots have proven that they can win without forcing turnovers. But they also know that they will make life easier in the Super Bowl if they can cause one against the Eagles, who didn’t turn the ball over last week against Minnesota, but had six giveaways in their previous three games with Nick Foles at quarterback.
“Even though it hasn’t hurt us too much, it would definitely help,” cornerback Eric Rowe said. “I mean, especially the biggest game, you’re going to need turnovers against Philly.”
The Patriots had never gone four games without a takeaway — not in the Bill Belichick era or any other era since the team was founded in 1960. They had gone three straight games only twice — in 2005 and 2016.
This season’s defense has been stingy without the turnovers, ranking fifth in the NFL in points allowed (18.5 points per game). In their last six games, dating to the Monday night loss to the Dolphins, the Patriots are 5-1 and allowing 17.8 points per game.
But this also has been the least opportunistic defense ever in New England. The Patriots had just 18 takeaways this season, eighth-fewest in the NFL, and tied with the 2005 Patriots for fewest in franchise history. By comparison, the 2012 team had 41 takeaways.
“We’ve just got to keep pressuring the ball and keep trying to get it out,” said defensive end Trey Flowers, who led the team with 6½ sacks during the regular season and was second with two forced fumbles. “We need all the help we can with the great offense that we’re facing in the Super Bowl. That’s always the mentality.”
There are also some outside factors influencing the Patriots’ lack of takeaways. The NFL has become a safer, risk-averse game over the years, with quarterbacks eschewing deep passes for shorter, safer ones.
NFL teams threw an interception on just 2.5 percent of pass attempts this season, the third-lowest rate of all time (2.3 percent, 2016). Compare that with the 1971 season, when interceptions were thrown on 5.8 percent of passes, an increase of 132 percent from this season.
And there were only 706 turnovers in the NFL this season, second-fewest of all time since the NFL-AFL merger (excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season). The record was set in 2016, with only 700 turnovers, and the nine seasons with the fewest turnovers have all occurred within the last decade. Compare that with the 1978 season, when there were 1,136 turnovers.
McCourty said that teams play even more cautiously against the Patriots.
“Teams play us, and I think the first thing they’re saying is, ‘Don’t give that offense another opportunity,’ ” McCourty said. “We know we have to go get turnovers, but guys aren’t just going to come out and make errant throws.”
The Patriots’ defense is still excelling despite the lack of turnovers. The Bills, Jets, and Titans were held to 16 points or fewer. The Jaguars scored 20 points a week after putting up 45 on the Steelers.
“Situational football. For us, that’s what it always comes down to,” McCourty said. “Even last week, we talked about their third-down percentage in the first half compared to the second half. That was the difference in the game. Getting third-down stops, making them kick field goals . . . You need to play really well in those areas if you don’t get turnovers.”
The Patriots’ defense has allowed 37.1 percent of third-down conversions over its last six games, better than their season average of 39.4 percent. The Jaguars went 4 for 6 on third down in the first half, but just 2 for 9 in the second half.
The Patriots have clamped down in the red zone, allowing touchdowns on just 9 of 17 possessions. They haven’t been as efficient in the postseason, allowing touchdowns on all four red zone drives, but on the flip side, the Patriots have only allowed four red zone opportunities in 21 possessions this postseason.
The Patriots’ defense is also 4 for 8 on fourth down over the last six games. Although those four turnovers on downs don’t count in turnover statistics, they have the same effect.
“Obviously, you have to be disciplined,” Flowers said. “Any time we get a three-and-out or shorten a drive or a turnover on downs, that’s still big, that’s still good defense. As much as we can have our offense out there on the field, they’ll be able to produce points.”
Obviously, the Patriots know they could use a turnover or two against the Eagles. The defense basically won each of the last two Super Bowls with timely takeaways — Malcolm Butler’s goal line interception, and Dont’a Hightower’s strip-sack.
“We work at it a lot, we’ve just got to carry it from practice to the game field,” Rowe said. “I know once we do, I feel like we can’t be stopped. Even with one turnover, all we need is that swing of momentum, and we know the offense will get it going.”
Patriots remain a big-game team
A few Patriots-related notes to jump-start Super Bowl week:
■ One stat that can’t be emphasized enough is the Patriots’ postseason dominance in the fourth quarter. Since the start of the 2014-15 playoffs, which was the beginning of this Patriots run, the Patriots have outscored opponents, 99-34, in the fourth quarter and overtime. That includes a 14-0 margin over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, a 25-0 margin over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI, and a 14-3 margin last week over Jacksonville (that’s 53-3, for those counting at home).
In those 10 playoff games, the Patriots have allowed just three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and two of those were in garbage time of blowouts (Pittsburgh last year, Tennessee this year).
■ Another stat we’ll hear a lot this coming week is that in Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s previous seven Super Bowls, the Patriots have yet to score in the first quarter, being outscored, 15-0.
Belichick was asked about it this past week, and he tried to deflect it with sarcasm.
“Look, we try to score in every game,” he said. “I know that’s probably hard to understand, but we try to go out and score and keep the other team from scoring.”
But Belichick is keenly aware of the Patriots’ first-quarter ineptitude. In “Do Your Job Part 2,” the documentary the Patriots produced with NFL Films following the last Super Bowl win, linebackers coach Brian Flores shared a story at the Patriots coaches’ banquet in May:
“Coach Belichick prior to the game looked right at Tom Brady, he goes, ‘Tom, we’ve been to six Super Bowls together and we’ve never scored a point in the first quarter. Can we get that done?’ ” Flores told the room. “I look around and I go man, we’re going to score 30 points in the first quarter.”
■ U.S. Bank Stadium will be the 42nd stadium in which Brady has played an NFL regular-season or postseason game. His list of singletons: AT&T Stadium, Estadio Azteca, CenturyLink Field, Edward Jones Dome, Levi’s Stadium, Memorial (Ill.) Stadium, Metrodome, Silverdome, Raymond James Stadium, Soldier Field, Sun Devil Stadium, TCF Bank Stadium, and Texas Stadium.
He has played two games at Wembley Stadium. And none, sadly, at Candlestick Park.
■ Patriots players will receive $112,000 each if they win the Super Bowl, and $56,000 if they lose. And so will a couple of ex-Patriots.
Per Article 37.4 of the collective bargaining agreement, players are entitled to full playoff shares if they were with the team for eight or more games “provided he is not under contract to another club in the same conference at the time of the game in question.”
Jimmy Garoppolo was with the Patriots for eight games and is now in the NFC, so he gets a full playoff share. Cassius Marsh also gets a full share after spending nine games in New England and then signing in San Francisco.
And as pointed out by sports tax expert Robert Raiola, Garoppolo will actually make more off this game than Brady. Since Brady will spend seven work days in Minnesota, he will have to pay a 9.85 percent state tax on a portion of his income. But Garoppolo will only have to pay state income tax wherever he is a resident, which is most likely Illinois (4.95 percent) or Massachusetts (5.1 percent).
Record number of concussions
The NFL on Friday released its injury data for the 2017 season, and the league saw a record number of concussions — 281, up from 243 in 2016 and 275 in 2015.
NFL medical chief Dr. Allen Sills said, “We take this as a challenge, because we’re not going to be satisfied until we drive that number much lower.” But the NFL also highlighted the fact that self-reporting of concussions continues to rise, and there’s no question that the increase in documented concussions is a result of the extra attention being paid to head injuries.
But the league’s transparency on Friday was overshadowed by its unfortunate statement released earlier in the week attempting to shame fans and media for questioning the league’s handling of concussions.
In a press release on Wednesday announcing that Cam Newton did not suffer a concussion on Jan. 7, the NFL admonished the public at large for pointing out that it sure looked like Newton and the Panthers sidestepped the league’s concussion protocol.
“We urge restraint among those who attempt to make medical diagnoses based upon the broadcast video alone,” the league said.
Sorry, but the NFL lost that benefit of the doubt long ago. The league only came to its concussion protocol over threats of lawsuits, and players seem to fall through the cracks every year, whether it’s Case Keenum, Tom Savage or Russell Wilson. Fans have every right to point out potential concussions, and wonder why a player isn’t getting the medical treatment he seemingly deserves.
On further review, Riveron returning
Al Riveron’s first year as the NFL’s director of officiating had plenty of controversy, as Riveron overturned several instant replay calls that didn’t use the “clear and obvious” standard adopted by the league.
But it wasn’t enough for Riveron to lose his job, as the NFL confirmed last week that Riveron will return in his role next year, in which he oversees the entire officiating department and has the final say on all instant replay decisions from league headquarters.
Riveron wasn’t supposed to have this job — he was supposed to be No. 2 behind Dean Blandino, but Blandino surprisingly left the NFL last spring. To his credit, Riveron seems to have heard the criticism about being too technical with his replay decisions, and he has done a much better job this postseason.
One suggestion for the NFL: Next season, make Riveron available to reporters after games. Currently, the referee does a pool report to explain a controversial call. But since Riveron is now the one making the final call, he should hold the Q&A, not the referees.
Accompanied by an adult
Ben McAdoo’s two-year tenure in New York ended in disaster, and it’s no secret how those inside the building feel about their former coach.
New Giants general manager Dave Gettleman took a not-so-subtle dig at McAdoo last week when speaking to reporters about new coach Pat Shurmur.
“I really believe the head coach job for the New York football Giants is a job for an adult,” Gettleman said at the Senior Bowl. “And Pat’s every bit of that.”
Harsh words, but probably true. McAdoo, 40, had no control over his players, and a promising season quickly spiraled out of control. Shurmur, 52, impressed Gettleman in his interview.
“This is a job for a grown-up,” Gettleman added. “We’re halfway through the interview and I wrote down in my notes: ‘This is an adult.’ He’s mature. He’s got wisdom. He’s very even-keeled. His demeanor really pays off.”
The Patriots finished No. 3 in the NFL in the widely respected special teams rankings released by longtime NFL writer Rick Gosselin, which surely brought a smile to Bill Belichick’s face. The Patriots ranked in the top five of 11 of 22 special teams categories, and finished only behind the Rams and Chiefs overall. The Rams, who sent their kicker, punter, return specialist, and long snapper to the Pro Bowl, had the best special teams score in 14 years . . . Go back and watch Danny Amendola’s winning touchdown over the Jaguars last week.
It’s the same play on which he scored a touchdown against the Jaguars in a 2015 regular-season matchup.
And the same play on which Julian Edelman scored the winning touchdown over the Seahawks in the Super Bowl
The NFL released other injury data on Friday for the 2017 season, and it fell in line with previous years. The NFL said there were 54 ACL tears this season, the fewest since 2014. There were 147 MCL tears, four more than last season (143) and down from 170 two years ago. And, surprisingly, the NFL acknowledged that for the first time, the injury rate was higher for Thursday night games than it was for all other games (6.9 injuries per game vs. 6.3). The NFL’s response whenever people complain about the injury risk of playing football on four days’ rest is that the data says that Thursday night games have fewer injuries. That’s no longer the case . . . The NFL has had two players named Chung in its history, and both have been with the Patriots and Eagles, and both will be present at Super Bowl LII. Patriots safety Patrick Chung spent the 2013 season with the Eagles before returning to New England, of course. But former Patriots first-round pick Eugene Chung is also around, as an assistant offensive line coach for the Eagles. Chung played for the Patriots from 1992-94, and got his NFL coaching start with the Eagles in 2010.