Dear AFC: Watch Out. Love, New England.
By: Kim O'Hara | Posted: December 11, 2012
New England wins regular season games. New England makes the playoffs. Even with quarterback Tom Brady recovering from a torn ACL in 2008, the Patriots made the playoffs. But the Patriots haven't won the Super Bowl since 2005, despite trips after the 2007 and 2011 seasons. What gives?
I'd argue that New England has been missing a reliable, if not powerhouse defense. Its Tedy Bruschi-led defensive attack helped win those three Super Bowls, and a similar unit might have stopped the New York Giants in 2008 or 2012. Last season was the worst statistical season New England's defense has seen since head coach Bill Belichick assumed control in 2000, allowing an NFL second-worst 411.1 yards a game. Its allowed points was impressive in comparison, a 15th-ranked 21.4. Defensive takeaways were also huge for New England's secondary. It capitalized on the fourth-most pass attempts in the NFL (619), by notching 23 interceptions (two returned for touchdowns). But injuries to players like safety Patrick Chung, linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo and cornerback Devin McCourty, all of whom missed at least two games, resulted in a lack of consistency for the defense.
Perhaps it's because I still have the three-pick Indianapolis game in my head, but I had assumed the number of interceptions would have increased significantly since 2011, but the 2012 squad isin't on pace to match last year's number, with 15 intereceptions through 13 games. But the eye-popping number of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries are the turnover statistics that have made a difference. The Patriots have forced 31 fumbles, recovered 19 of them and scored four touchdowns, all NFL-leading statistics. Last season's defense forced 10 fumbles, recovered 11 and scored just one touchdown. That's wild improvement if I've ever seen it.
Three of those forced fumbles came from rookie Chandler Jones. In the draft this April, New England addressed its defensive needs by trading up for Syracuse defensive end Jones and Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower. The two youngsters have each played in 11 games and accounted for nine of the team's 28 sacks. The midseason acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib has also made for a more well-rounded secondary. He has contributed two interceptions in his four games as a Patriot, but he's also freed up secondary-mates McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory and rookie Alfonzo Dennard, who have combined for four interceptions and four forced fumbles since Talib's arrival.
When push comes to shove, the Patriots offense is so high-powered and dynamic, a world class defense isn't a necessity. The 35 year-old Brady, who appears to have discovered the fountain of football youth, hasn't dropped a beat in his 11th full NFL season. He's on pace for 4,717 yards and about 35 touchdown passes. His arsenal of receivers have always been capable of scoring more points than any other team in the NFL, and they now have the support of the one-two running back punch of Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Even with monster tight end Rob Gronkowski sidelined for the last three games, the Patriots offense hasn't missed a beat. A (very) healthy-looking Aaron Hernandez looked fully recovered from a nagging ankle injury last night against Houston, stepping in for Gronkowski and grabbing two touchdowns. Offseason acquisition Brandon Lloyd finally lived up to all the vertical threat hype that followed him from St. Louis, notching a 37-yard touchdown against the Texans. Receiver Wes Welker returned to his punt returning roots as he filled in for an injured Julian Edelman; he averaged 12.5 yards a return. He also added 52 receiving yards for good measure.
When a team's offense clicks as well as New England's is (for a change), it could be easy to overlook its defense. But the 2012 defense is not only allowing fewer yards from its opponents, it's contributing to the team's bottom line. And if last night's utter dismantling of Houston, the purported class of this year's AFC, is any indication, the entire conference has been put on notice. New England is preparing to ride its balanced approach far into the postseason and all the way to a fourth Brady-Belichick Lombardi Trophy; all its peers can do is hope to keep up.
Kim O'Hara is the Associate Editor of TheFootballGirl.com. She is an avid fan of sports in general, but the NFL in particular. She has also been a contributor to ESPN the Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @KimOHaraTFG
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