The New England Patriots won their fifth straight AFC East title in 2013 despite a number of injuries to prominent contributors on both sides of the ball.
Now, as the Patriots prepare to face the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round, the loss of yet another starter on defense has them scrambling to plug yet another hole in the boat.
This time, it's inside linebacker Brandon Spikes whose season has come to an abrupt end, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe.
Granted, Spikes' 2013 stats don't leap off the page. However, the 26-year-old has been much more effective on the field than his numbers indicate, especially against the run.
|Brandon Spikes 2013|
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Spikes ranked sixth among all NFL inside linebackers in 2013. His grade of 11.6 in run defense was the highest of any player at his position in the league.
That stoutness against the run was sorely needed down the stretch by the Pats, and it's Spikes' status as the latest in a number of defensive dominoes to fall in New England that may finally be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
|New England Patriots Defensive Players on IR|
|Jerod Mayo||OLB||Led team with 147 tackles in 2012|
|Brandon Spikes||ILB||#1 ILB in NFL vs. run in 2013 per PFF|
|Vince Wilfork||DT||Pro-Bowler from 2009-2012|
|Tommy Kelly||DT||22 tackles, 2.5 sacks in 5 games in 2013|
The middle of the New England defense has been completely annihilated. Both starting defensive tackles have been lost for the year. Ditto for the top two linebackers.
The injuries have shown on the field. The Patriots slipped all the way to 30th in the NFL in run defense (they ranked ninth in 2012) this season, allowing over 134 yards a game.
Now the hole has gotten even bigger, and for all the talk of "next man up," the Patriots are running out of men.
Fourth-year pro Dane Fletcher and youngster Jamie Collins will both see a lot more playing time with Spikes on the shelf. And while Collins has shown flashes during his rookie season, neither player received a positive grade in run defense from PFF.
If there's any silver lining in this mess, it's that for one week at least the Patriots may have caught a break.
The Colts have struggled to run the ball consistently this year, but the rest of the playoff field is littered with 1,000-yard backs and effective ground games.
|2013-2014 NFL Playoff Teams Rushing Offense|
|Team||Rank||Yards Per Game|
|San Francisco 49ers||3rd||137.6|
|New England Patriots||9th||129.1|
|San Diego Chargers||13th||122.8|
|New Orleans Saints||25th||92.1|
If there's a coach in the NFL who can pull off this shell game and get the Patriots back to the Super Bowl, it's probably Bill Belichick. He's one of the best defensive minds ever to prowl an NFL sideline, and he's done more with less before.
He did this year, guiding the Patriots to the AFC's second seed through all of their injuries.
With that said though, there are now huge questions hanging over every level of the defense, and that's without even mentioning that New England's two best defensive backs—safety Devin McCourty and cornerback Aqib Talib—are also banged up.
Bill Belichick may be one of the best coaches in NFL history, but he only has 10 fingers.
And the boat may just have sprung hole number 11.