New England's defense must pressure them.
Defenses don't win championships like they used to, seeing as how two of the last three Super Bowl winners haven't ranked better than 25th in total defense.
But while the amount of yards a defense concedes is inconclusive in the grand scheme of things, getting to the quarterback is not. WEEI.com's Christopher Price points out that eight of the last 10 Super Bowl champs have placed sixth or better in total sacks.
This year, New England finished the regular season tied for 15th in sacks, per NFL.com. Six playoff teams brought down quarterbacks more. Those six teams have limited quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 81.2. The Pats' defense hasn't been as impressive, allowing a rating of 86.9.
If the Patriots can put quarterbacks under pressure, their odds of winning skyrocket. In New England's 12 wins this year, the defense collected 32 sacks. Although in their four losses, they've amassed only five sacks, cites ESPN.com.
Penetrating the offensive backfield has shown to alleviate pressure in the defensive backfield, where the Patriots landed fourth-worst in passing yardage this regular season. In fact, 18 of New England's 20 interceptions this year have come in victories.
The bend-don't-break defense has been good enough to earn the Patriots a first-round bye. Still, the defense will have to flex a little less during the squad's playoff run and that starts with consistent pass rush.
From the defensive end spot, rookie first-rounder Chandler Jones and seven-year veteran Rob Ninkovich have combined for 14 sacks. Despite their surprisingly solid production, it remains to be seen whether or not they can sustain it for the long haul.
Since returning from an ankle injury suffered in Week 11 versus the Indianapolis Colts, Jones has been held without a sack. And during the Week 17 tilt against the Miami Dolphins, Ninkovich suffered what initially appeared to be a serious hip injury. He has since returned to practice, according to CSNNE.com's Phil Perry.
Even though Jones and Ninkovich have done all they can to make life difficult for quarterbacks, intensity from the supporting cast will be just as vital. In recent weeks, undrafted rookie Justin Francis and ex-Oakland Raider Trevor Scott have stepped up their play. And during the regular season finale, the two backups totaled four sacks.
The team will need Jermaine Cunningham to join them.
Cunningham has been contained since returning from his four-week suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. Following his hiatus, the former Florida Gator has made just one tackle.
Not all the weight falls on the backs of the edge rushers, though. The inside of New England's defensive line has been lacking pass rush as well.
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is a disruptive force in the middle. Yet regarded primarily as a run-stopper, Wilfork could use some help aside him on passing downs.
Fellow defensive tackle Kyle Love, who's also more of a lane-clogger, has seen his playing time drop off. He's been replaced by the more agile Brandon Deaderick in an attempt to jolt some energy into the interior. Deaderick was credited with his first sack of the season just last week.
It will take a group effort from the defensive front to ensure an extensive playoff run. After all, past seasons have proven that a lack of pass rush can be the nail in New England's coffin.
These telling numbers have decided New England's destiny over the last five years. So to alter the trend, the Patriots must to be the team delivering quarterback hits this postseason.
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