It was somewhat surprising when the New England Patriots defense carried the team in the early part of the 2013 season. Yes, the Pats defense returned almost entirely intact from 2012—the first time it had such continuity since the dynasty days—but the team had grown accustomed to being an offensive powerhouse with a subpar defense that gave up yards by the mile.
Winning games with defense? How novel.
In September and early October, the defense was healthy and playing some of the best football we've seen out of a Patriots defense in a long time, as it was shutting down big-name players like Julio Jones and Jimmy Graham, and making impressive fourth-quarter stands to set up wins against the Bills, Jets, Falcons and Saints.
Meanwhile, the offense was assimilating three rookie pass-catchers into the system and took two big hits in Week 1, losing Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen to injury. With Rob Gronkowski still on the sideline as well, the Pats offense looked nothing like what we've come to expect.
They put up less than 250 yards of total offense against both the Jets in Week 2 and Bengals in Week 5 to go with just one touchdown combined in the two losses.
But over the last month, as the offense slowly returned to health and showed flashes of dominance, the injuries began to pile up on defense. From Weeks 4 to 6 the Pats lost two defensive captains in Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, another defensive starter in Tommy Kelly, and their defensive MVP to that point, Aqib Talib.
Since that stretch, the Pats are just 2-2—with both losses coming on the road in controversial fashion—and the defensive injuries just keep piling up.
Steve Gregory broke his thumb before the bye the week and missed the Panthers game. Alfonzo Dennard had a meniscus arthroscopy on his knee, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, and is likely to miss his second straight game this Sunday against the Broncos. Talib also didn't finish the game against the Panthers after his injured hip "tightened up," while Kyle Arrington is fighting a groin problem that caused him to miss some snaps as well.
The Patriots don't have a starting cornerback who is not on the injury report, and while all three—along with Steve Gregory—have practiced this week, that's no assurance all will play.
The Panthers' game-winning drive looked an awful lot like some of the heartbreakers the Pats saw in recent years, and it was clear the defense was overmatched at the end.
Has the Patriots defense reached the inevitable tipping point?
The answer might depend on how good the Pats finally healthy offense can be. Or more importantly, how many points they can put on the board.
With Gronkowski, Amendola and Vereen back, it looks like they might be just scratching the surface. In the last three games they've put up their first- and third-most passing yards on the season.
"For the first time last week, we basically had guys healthy so we don’t even know what we’re good at at this point," Brady told Patriots.com on Wednesday.
Can the Patriots overcome their injuries?
The paradigm has shifted since earlier this season, and once again the pressure is on Tom Brady and the Pats offense to deliver enough touchdowns. This was not a Super Bowl-winning formula the past few seasons, especially when opponents didn't turn the ball over.
Perhaps the secondary can get back to full health for a Super Bowl run and the defense can return to the level of performance it demonstrated early in the season despite missing Wilfork, Kelly and Mayo. They've gotten by with fill-in secondary players in the past—most notably in 2004—but this year's losses are unprecedented, especially in the front seven.
If Talib, Dennard and Gregory cannot return to form, the stark reality is that the Pats will only go as far as Brady and the offense take them.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Featured Columnist who also writes and edits PatsPropaganda.com.