By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Ready for some cold, hard facts?
Dont’a Hightower has now missed 13 games in the Patriots’ last 55 since the start of the 2014 season. The Patriots have gone 10-3 in those games, and have allowed 18.3 points per game on defense.
Their points allowed per game in the other 42 games? 19.2. Just the facts, folks.
No, the Patriots defense is not better without Hightower. This isn’t to suggest they’ll be exactly the same without him, if he is indeed out for the rest of the season. They were already lacking in the pass rush department and Kyle Van Noy, while developing into a fine leader in the middle of the defense, is not the athlete Hightower is.
But that’s no reason to say the Patriots’ Super Bowl chances are gone. Even after losing Hightower, they should have as good a chance to win it all as anyone.
The Patriots’ overall defensive stats over the past three and a half seasons should be a large-enough sample size to suggest that Bill Belichick is capable of finding ways to play solid defense and win games without Hightower on the field. Of course the head coach would prefer to have him rather than not, but he is probably used to game-planning without No. 54 by now.
This season is a bit different, because the defense struggled mightily to start the season and they are especially thin at linebacker. They lack playmakers and Hightower was arguably their best. But haven’t Belichick and Tom Brady shown enough to earn your confidence that they can figure this one out?
The Patriots won their 13 games without Hightower since 2014 by a combined scored of 382-238. That’s an average score of 29-19. The last game they lost without Hightower was the infamous Miami game in Week 17 of 2015; the defense wasn’t great in that game (438 total yards for the Dolphins), but ultimately allowed just 20 points – what really doomed the team that week was a bizarrely poor offensive game plan that netted them only 10 points.
Obviously, it’s hard to compare games from 2014 or 2015 to the games that Hightower will miss this season, especially considering the turnover that has occurred on the defense season-to-season. There’s still a very real chance that the defense eventually gets exposed in a playoff game by an offense equipped to exploit them. Maybe the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt can light them up all over again. Maybe they have to face the Steelers and can’t stop Le’Veon Bell. Maybe they simply can’t get pressure on quarterbacks and slowly get picked apart no matter who’s out there.
But for argument’s sake, let’s say the Patriots get back to the Super Bowl. Who do you look at in the NFC and see as a guaranteed loss, a team that would absolutely have the weapons to put the Hightower-less Patriots defense in its place?
Seattle may come to mind, but their offensive line could actually be susceptible to what the Patriots have up front. The two hottest quarterbacks/teams in the conference (the Eagles with Carson Wentz and the Rams with Jared Goff) are almost entirely unproven and no guarantees to keep up their current paces. The Eagles at least have three guys (LeGarrette Blount, Chris Long, Torrey Smith) who have won a Super Bowl, while the Rams have a big fat zero.
Not to mention that the Packers lost Aaron Rodgers (an actual season-ruining injury), the Cowboys have taken a step back, the Saints may have an even worse defense, the Vikings have Sam “Balsa Wood” Bradford at QB, and the Falcons look like the Monstars from Space Jam stole their talent.
The 2017 season has been full of parity from the start, and the Patriots are far from the only team that has to deal with major injuries. A Super Bowl win in a season where every other team had its share of losses and weaknesses is still a Super Bowl win.
Here’s a scorching take: there’s only one loss that would actually doom the Patriots if he got injured, and he wears No. 12. As long as Brady is active, the Pats have a major advantage over pretty much every other team in the league and absolutely cannot be written off just because they lost a linebacker.
I know, to describe Hightower as just “a linebacker” is disingenuous. It’s beyond sensible to have real concerns about the defense’s ability to stop, well, anyone without him. And there is one strong-to-quite-strong argument why the Patriots could not win the Super Bowl without Hightower, which I will make for you right now: they probably don’t get the last two Super Bowl wins without him. See “Lynch, Marshawn” and “Ryan, Matt”.
It’s fair to wonder how the Patriots would win the Super Bowl if they get into similar spots as they did at the end of their last two Super Bowl appearances. Who makes the game-saving tackle or momentum-shifting strip sack now? But Brady and Belichick have shown too many times over the years how well they can overcome the team’s injuries and deficiencies. There’s no reason to definitively dismiss them this time, either.
The Patriots unquestionably got worse today, and so did their Super Bowl hopes. But the doomsday narratives, the apocalyptic rhetoric that will inevitably come out of this, I simply cannot accept.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.