By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It sounds asinine to ask, after the way the Patriots played on defense for much of the season and appeared to hit rock-bottom against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10. But considering the way they’ve performed on that side of the ball in the last three games, highlighted by Sunday’s thoroughly dominant three-point performance on the road against the Denver Broncos, it’s fair to wonder.
Is this Patriots defense good enough to win them a championship?
The answer may depend on your definition of a “championship-caliber” defense. You may view that as a defense that is capable of winning games on its own whenever Tom Brady and the offense doesn’t have their best day (which was the case on Sunday), or as a defense that just needs to be good enough to complement what remains a Super Bowl-caliber offense.
The Patriots defense has proved in recent weeks that they could certainly fall into the latter category, but for the purpose of this exercise, let’s define “championship-caliber” as the former. Can this Patriots defense march through the playoffs and beat an NFC opponent in the Super Bowl on their own merit?
It’s still hard to pinpoint where, exactly, this Patriots defense is after playing the Broncos, whose offensive line has been subpar and whose quarterback is nowhere near the level of the best in the league. But to hold any team to just three points, especially on their home field in one of the toughest environments in the NFL to play in, is no doubt an impressive feat. And they mostly did it playing straight-up, generating consistent pressure on Trevor Siemian with just three or four rushers and covering the Broncos’ talented receiving corps excellently across the board in the secondary – despite whatever Emmanuel Sanders thinks.
In the previous game against the Ravens, the Patriots played more aggressively up front with shifts on the defensive line and got pressure on Joe Flacco that way. One of their line shifts also directly resulted in Malcom Brown’s safety in that game. There was similar trickeration in Week 13 against the Los Angeles Rams and rookie quarterback Jared Goff, who looked lost trying to decipher all of the looks that Matt Patricia’s defense was giving him.
Regardless of the competition, the Patriots defense has passed the vaunted “eye test” in three straight games, all while executing three relatively different game plans. They are emerging as a group that plays well together as a unit and still looks different from week to week, depending on the opponent.
Malcolm Butler continues to look like one of the elite corners in the league with his strong play and infectiously competitive attitude, which appears to be rubbing off on his teammates in the secondary. The linebacking corps has gotten a boost from mid-season acquisition Kyle Van Noy after looking shaky in the immediate aftermath of the Jamie Collins trade. But perhaps most surprisingly, the seemingly non-existent pass rush has become an asset in recent weeks, whether through creative scheming or just improved play up front.
The pressure they generated in Denver mostly came from the latter category. The Patriots mostly rushed just three or four down linemen, but their front-four, particularly Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown, has really shown marked improvement in recent weeks, and it’s no coincidence that the whole defense is playing better and giving up fewer points as a result.
Yeah, but are they championship-caliber?
It’s hard to take away from what the Patriots have been able to do on defense in their last three games, especially against the Ravens and against the Broncos’ receivers, but it’s fair to note that the Rams, Ravens and Broncos are not the caliber of offensive attack that the Patriots could face in the playoffs and/or the Super Bowl. In all likelihood, the defense will end up facing a more significant test – and that, as a true cynic would say, is when they would get exposed.
But that was already supposed to happen. The Ravens were supposed to have a quarterback in Flacco who could throw all over their secondary and be unafraid to face them. The Broncos were supposed to have enough in their receiving corps to make the plays they needed to scratch at least 17 points across the board and overcome Brady on their home field. None of those things happened.
The Patriots defense has been terrific in recent weeks, but could still be vulnerable to an opponent with enough firepower and experience at both QB and the skill positions to give Brady a run. The Pittsburgh Steelers may be the only team in the conference that potentially has both. The Oakland Raiders have loads of talent and an MVP-caliber QB in Derek Carr, but they are completely untested as a playoff team. The Kansas City Chiefs have good weapons and a solid QB in Alex Smith, but he is certainly not the kind of talent that would intimidate the defense or be a true threat to go toe-to-toe with Brady.
With the Patriots playing their best football of the season and in the driver’s seat for home-field advantage in the AFC, the real obstacle to them winning a fifth Lombardi Trophy lies more in the NFC on what would be a neutral field. Teams like Dallas, Atlanta, and Detroit appear to have the QB and skill players to take advantage of whatever holes they can find in the Patriots defense, but those players would also be playing in the first Super Bowl of their careers with a severe disadvantage in the coaching department. There’s also those pesky blue-shirted gentlemen who play in New Jersey.
At this point, the biggest threat to the Patriots remains the Seahawks, who looked unstoppable with Russell Wilson throwing all over the field in their Week 10 matchup at Gillette Stadium. But that game was also the first for the defense post-Collins, when the group was still in the midst of making the adjustments that come with a move as significant as jettisoning a player of Collins’ caliber. In another rematch of Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots would likely be better than they were that night, but it still may not be enough for the Patriots to win on defense alone.
As great as the Patriots defense has looked in the last three games, it remains to be seen if they can look as good against a better QB with more size, skill, and toughness at receiver. The confidence that they can pull it off is certainly higher than it was a month ago, but it’s still no guarantee.
Can the Patriots defense play well enough to supplement Brady and the offense on a good day? Absolutely. If Brady has an off day at the worst time, can they win a playoff game on their own? That is a question that, despite their superb effort on Sunday, remains unanswered.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.