By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Somehow, the Patriots defense looks vastly improved now compared to before the Jamie Collins trade.

It sure looked shaky for a few weeks. The defense was abysmal against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10 and uneven-at-best against the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets in Weeks 11-12, but it has risen up in a major way since then. Whether or not it’s at all related to Bill Belichick’s shocking decision to send Collins to the Cleveland Browns – in what amounted to essentially cutting the former All-Pro linebacker – the defense’s improvement suddenly has them looking like it could be championship-caliber.

What has been the catalyst for the defense’s stunning turnaround in recent weeks? It certainly helps that they have faced a relatively easy schedule in terms of opposing quarterbacks, but they mostly stymied Joe Flacco and the usually-formidable Baltimore Ravens in Week 14 on Monday Night Football. And regardless of how you feel about the Broncos’ Trevor Siemian, to hold that team to just three points on their home field in what’s usually a tough environment for them is hugely impressive.

Much of the improvement in the defense can be credited to the play of the secondary, which includes a still-improving Malcolm Butler continuing to make big plays, including two interceptions and a fumble recovery against the New York Jets on Christmas Eve. Steady safety Devin McCourty has enjoyed one of his best NFL seasons manning the defensive field. Logan Ryan has played better after an inconsistent first half to the season. Even trade addition Eric Rowe has shown up with some big plays in recent weeks.

When asked about how much it helps the secondary that they’ve been playing together for a long time, Belichick called it a “big plus.” He offered this response that is quite telling about how the Patriots defense as a whole is playing right now:

“I think that’s a big plus, just to be able to – in the end whether you’re fighting in a war or you’re fighting on the football field, you’re really fighting for the guy next to you. That’s really what the tightest bond is, the biggest motivation is, is to not let the guy beside you down. Those relationships, all of those things that go into teamwork and teammates are very important in team building. Certainly, there’s talent and execution and all of that is involved, and then the communication. … That kind of trust, communication and love for your teammates, and again, wanting to be unselfish and play for your teammates is a huge part of any team.”

The defense certainly appears to be playing better as a collective unit in recent weeks. Guys aren’t getting caught out of position as much, they’re not getting picked apart down the field like they had in prior games, and now they’re stepping up and taking the ball away. They’re all sticking to the “Do Your Job” mantra, and it’s paying off.

Belichick’s comments about “wanting to be unselfish” could be interpreted as a shot at Collins and others who have been cut loose from the defense over the course of his Patriots tenure. To be fair, there’s nothing concrete to suggest that Collins was a “selfish” player who disrupted the defense as a result. Ian Rapoport’s report that Collins was “clashing with coaches” and Mike Lombardi’s remarks about Collins’ alleged “freelancing” were disputed or outright denied.

But what cannot be dismissed is that the Patriots defense is playing better now than they did at any point during the first nine weeks of the season. They’re now first in the NFL in points allowed per game, a strength for the whole season. They have even risen to eighth in total yards allowed per game and a tie for third in turnover differential. Also, for you anti-stats folk out there (I’m constantly straddling the fence), they’ve also passed the vaunted “eye test” in recent weeks with their aggressiveness, creativity, and clutch playmaking.

Whether the Patriots defense is more unselfish now than it was in the first half of the season, and whether that would have anything to do with Collins, is anyone’s guess. But Belichick is loving what he’s seeing in that department right now, based on his comments on Wednesday. Regardless of how or why, the Patriots defense is playing its best football at the most important time of the season, and that’s all that matters.

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 mdolloff@985thesportshub.com.

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