Patriots’ Defense Is Good, But Is It Championship-Caliber?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The highly rated and well-loved Felger & Massarotti program is known for covering all angles of the local sports landscape while occasionally dipping in to some of the more negative opinions on Boston’s teams. Occasionally. Once in a while.

So on Monday, a day after the Patriots’ 35-17 win over the Bengals, the topic of the Patriots owning the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL was a major one. The crux, essentially, was this: Does it really look like a top defense?

Anyone who’s watched the Patriots’ six games would likely say no. The Patriots have allowed 387.2 yards per game, which is tied for fifth-most in the NFL and is the highest total in all of the AFC. Their 12 sacks rank them 17th in the NFL. Their eight forced turnovers rank them 12th, with their four interceptions putting them squarely in the middle of the pack.

But, as one might say, the scoreboard never lies. Ranking second in points allowed speaks for itself, and it’s as big a reason as any that the Patriots own a charming 5-1 record through six weeks.

Despite that ranking, concerns linger on the Felger & Massarotti program.

Jim Murray said this: “That’s my concern. How’s this worked out for them before, when they finish 14-2, whatever, and they have the fast track to the Super Bowl or the AFC Championship Game, and they have a team that can slow it down, keep [the offense] off the field, and the defense can’t get off the field on third down? I immediately go back to that 2011 Super Bowl, when they were [30th defensively] in the league overall. Granted, this defense is better, but they can’t make plays. They can’t get off the field on third down.

“So, sure, finish 13-3, 14-2, neat, yeah,” Murray continued. “All of these games will be boring. Yay! You’ll have home-field advantage. It’s still a concern for me come playoff time.”

Mr. Massarotti then took the floor.

“You’re relying too much on Brady and the offense, is what it is,” Massarotti said. “This is the point: When the Patriots have been the best in the league, when they have won the Super Bowl, they’ve had a defense that makes plays. They don’t even have to make them all the time; they just have to make them some of the time.”

Michael Felger noted that the Patriots typically improve as the year goes on, but Mazz remains unconvinced that the defense is good enough to win games without the offense carrying the heaviest workload. The defense just doesn’t “look like the second-best defense in the league,” and there’s only one explanation as to how the Patriots have managed to hold opponents to so few points.

“Because they’re playing garbage,” Mazz said. “That is exactly what it is.”

The facts bear this out. The Patriots have faced the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans, Bills, Browns and Bengals. In terms of scoring, those are, respectively, the 10th, 23rd, 30th, fourth, 26th and 29th offenses in the NFL.

“To me, they’ve played garbage. They’ve played garbage offenses,” Mazz said.

“They really may only play one good quarterback the rest of the way when you look at it,” said Felger, referencing Seattle’s Russell Wilson in Week 10. “That’s it. Here are the quarterbacks coming up: Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch, and then Fitzpatrick again, and then Ryan Tannehill.”

Listen to the discussion here:

This got me thinking. While the putridity of the Patriots’ opposing offenses is clear to see, isn’t it possible that a team with a great offense and a good defense could manage to get through three postseason games without facing a first-class offense? Clearly, the regular season is shaping up that way, but might a “great against bad teams” defense be enough to win a Super Bowl.

There’s no way to answer that definitively, of course, but history often sheds some light on what it takes to win a Super Bowl. So here’s a rundown of the past 10 Super Bowl winners, with a look at where they ranked on defense (in terms of points allowed) and where their playoff opponents ranked offensively.

2015: Broncos, fourth-ranked defense
Opponents: Steelers (fourth), Patriots (third), Panthers (first)

2014: Patriots, eighth-ranked defense
Opponents: Ravens (eighth), Colts (sixth), Seahawks (10th)

2013: Seahawks, first-ranked defense
Opponents: Saints (10th), 49ers (11th), Broncos (first)

2012: Ravens, 12th-ranked defense
Opponents: Colts (18th), Broncos (second), Patriots (first), 49ers (11th)

2011: Giants, 25th-ranked defense
Opponents: Falcons (seventh), Packers (first), 49ers (11th), Patriots (third)

2010: Packers, second-ranked defense
Opponents: Eagles (third), Falcons (fifth), Bears (21st), Steelers (12th)

2009: Saints, 20th-ranked defense
Opponents: Cardinals (11th), Vikings (second), Colts (seventh)

2008: Steelers, first-ranked defense
Opponents: Chargers (second), Ravens (11th), Cardinals (third)

2007: Giants, 17th-ranked defense
Opponents: Buccaneers (18th), Cowboys (second), Packers (fourth), Patriots (first)

There are some common themes. For one, eight of the past 10 Super Bowl champions have needed to beat a team with at least the second-best offense in the NFL. One of the two exceptions (2010 Packers) still had to beat the No. 3 and No. 5 offense.

But the other exception was the 2014 Patriots team that managed to get the sixth, eighth and 10th-best offenses in the league during its playoff run.

That should, theoretically, provide reason to believe the Patriots might just be OK to beat up on bad offenses this season and still waltz their way to the Super Bowl. But considering how much that team stands out as an outlier, it’s not entirely encouraging — especially when you consider the Patriots’ own history.

You can see them show up there as teams dispatched by the eventual Super Bowl winner four times in the past 10 years. In those seasons, the Patriots had the No. 1 offense twice and the No. 3 offense twice. As the No. 4 offense in 2014 they were able to win it all, but they needed the whole Malcolm Butler miracle to make that happen.

So what’s the point?

That was a whole lot, I understand, but the point is here: Concerns about the Patriots’ defense not being good enough come playoff time are warranted. If they’re going to win the Super Bowl — and that’s all anyone rightfully cares about around here — then they’re almost assuredly going to have to defeat a team with a powerful offense. Thus far, the Patriots have played just one team with a top-five offense, and they lost that game 16-0.

Does any of this mean automatic and certain doom come January? No, of course not. But it is merely an indication that we might not be able to glean much about the actual caliber of the Patriots’ defense based on the first six weeks of the season. And with these offenses remaining on the schedule …

Pittsburgh, ninth (though now without Ben Roethlisberger)
Buffalo, fourth
Seattle, 20th
San Francisco, 19th
New York Jets (twice), 32nd
Los Angeles, 28th
Baltimore, 24th
Denver, 16th
Miami, 23rd

… we may not really know until it’s all on the line in January and, perhaps, February. All the Patriots can do in the meanwhile is beat up on bad offenses, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also won’t set them up with the best possible preparation for the playoffs.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments

One Comment

  1. Jared Carson says:

    What’s strange is that the Seahawks are singled out as the team with the scariest QB to worry about, but their offense is ranked the 20th.

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