It's time to reset expectations for the New England Patriots.
They are not the dominant passing game they've been in years past. Their offense is not capable of putting 30-plus points on the board on a consistent basis (they've failed to do so more than twice this year), but they are still a playoff team, and it's thanks in large part to the dawning of the age of the defense.
Don't tell The Fifth Dimension—or Aquarius—that I said that.
|Patriots defense, past three years|
Now, at 6-2, it's fairly safe to say the Patriots are headed to the postseason for the fifth straight year and for the 10th time in the past 11 years.
If it seems like the defense is on the right end of all the biggest, game-changing plays for the Patriots this season, that's probably because it's true. Sunday marked the 35th straight game in which the Patriots have forced at least one turnover.
The first turnover of the day just happened to be the play that gave the Patriots a chance to tie the game, with Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan blitzing off the right edge and sacking Tannehill, forcing the fumble midway through the third quarter in the process.
It might have been easy for the Patriots defense to get down on themselves after a tough first half, in which they let the Miami Dolphins rush for 103 yards on 22 carries, but they kept it together to make the key plays in the second half.
"We know what we're capable of, and I know what I'm capable of," said Ryan. "And we just know what we didn't do in the first half and just keep playing football and take it one play at a time and make things happen."
What they didn't do was get stops in the red zone and force turnovers, both areas in which the Patriots have thrived this season. In eight games, the Patriots have forced 16 turnovers on defense (10 interceptions, six fumble recoveries).
Yet, turnovers are hardly even the only reason for their success this season. In recent years, the Patriots defense has relied almost solely on its ability to create turnovers, but they're on pace for nine fewer takeaways this season than last season and a better scoring defense than we've seen in Foxborough since the team won three Super Bowls in four years.
They've given up plenty of yards in the running game and ranked 31st in the league in rushing yards headed into Week 8. Opponents continue to run the ball straight into the teeth of the Patriots defense, and those teeth haven't been as sharp without Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly and Jerod Mayo. In the past two games, the New York Jets and Dolphins have combined for 83 rush attempts against the Patriots defense.
They will continue to be tested up the middle, but they're coming up big in the red zone and have allowed just under 50 percent conversions when teams get inside the 20-yard line. Headed into Week 8, the Patriots ranked sixth in the league in red-zone percentage on defense.
Those are game-changing plays that directly impact the scoreboard, where the Patriots have dominated all season, and have allowed more than 24 points on just two occasions all season.
This is not a new anomaly either.
Against the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots offense got all the glory for their fourth-quarter rally and last-minute touchdown, but it was the defense providing three big stops in the final three minutes to give the Patriots new life and more opportunities to win the game.
Against the Jets in Week 2, the Pats offense didn't score any points in the second half, but the defense held the Jets out of the end zone and intercepted three passes off Jets quarterback Geno Smith to help ice the game.
The Patriots may very well be 7-1 right now had their offense done anything—anything at all—against the Cincinnati Bengals, with the Patriots defense holding Cincinnati to just 13 points (their second-lowest scoring output of the season).
The scary thing for opponents is, this defense could get better. Kelly, as mentioned, has missed the past three games with a knee injury. Cornerback Aqib Talib has missed the past two games with a hip injury. If and when those players return, the defense could continue to stymie opposing offenses.
The absence of those players has been eased by the emergence of defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback Logan Ryan. Jones has logged 4.5 sacks in the past four games, and Ryan has two sacks, a forced fumble and a pick-six in the past two games alone.
Either way, there's no getting around the subject at this point: The defense is keying the Patriots' run to the 2013 playoffs.
If anyone had made that claim 12 months ago, that person deserves a medal and was probably laughed at mercilessly for making such a seemingly preposterous claim.
Well, hypothetical person, now is the time to take your bow.
As the season goes on, so does the list of examples that the Patriots defense is making game-changing plays (more than the offense)—even without their best players and biggest leaders.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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