Bill Parcels, a man who roamed the sidelines for both the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, once uttered the phrase: "You are what you are.”
For most of the season, the Patriots appeared to be a team that methodically and surgically picked apart their opponents on offense while fielding a ball-hawking defense that excelled in providing extra possessions for their future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and his stable of weapons.
But what the Patriots really were was an offensively efficient machine that time and again covered up for their mediocre defense.
Ask yourself this: Did the thought of facing New England’s defense ever cause any sleepless nights for offensive coordinators on the Patriots’ schedule? Doubtful.
Did anyone ever equate this defense to those found in Pittsburgh, Baltimore or New York (the Jets, that is)? Certainly not.
Michael Felger, a Boston sports radio talk show co-host, preaches that stats are for losers.
In some instances, he’s right. On Sunday, the Patriots dominated time of possession (34:56 to 25:04), ran 24 more plays than the Jets, converted 12 more first downs, had 65 more passing yards and outgained New York by 58 yards.
The truth is each one of those numbers is just a line in a box score that only means something to fantasy football geeks.
But one stat that doesn’t lie and has been New England’s Achilles’ heel all season, is getting stops on third down.
In the regular season, the Patriots finished dead last in the league in third down conversions, allowing an average of 47.1 percent. Buffalo and Tampa Bay were the next closest at 43.2, almost four percentage points better.
New England’s inability to shut teams down on third down was never more glaring—and costly—then right before halftime.
After the Pats botched a fake punt, the Jets took over on the New England 37-yeard line with 1:06 left in the second quarter and leading the game, 7-3. On third and five from the New England 15-yard line, New York quarterback Mark Sanchez connected with Braylon Edwards for a touchdown, sending the Jets to the locker room with an eleven point cushion.
Had New England been able to hold the Jets to a field goal, they still would’ve trailed by only seven points. But falling two scores down on a day when their offense struggled to find any continuity changed the entire complexion of the second half.
That being said, let’s take nothing away from the Jets. They earned the win fair and square. New York rarely let New England find their offensive rhythm and they sacked Brady five times on the day after he had only been sacked 25 times all season.
While Gang Green was busy playing pig pile on Brady, the Patriots’ pass rush—another defensive liability—was non-existent.
While the Pats did finish tied with San Francisco for 14th in the league with 36.0 sacks, their team leader was Mike Wright with 5.5.
The problem for New England when the subject of conversation was sacking the quarterback was the lack of an edge pass rusher who the opposing offense would always need to account for.
Where New England made their bones on defense was with turnovers. They led the NFL with an outstanding plus 28 in takeaway margin.
For the regular season, they only turned the ball over ten times—five fumbles and five interceptions. Brady’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was a God-like nine to one (36 TDs, only four INTs).
The combination of the offense valuing possession of the ball while the defense consistently gave the offense extra cracks to light up the scoreboard translated into the league’s best record at 14-2 and the overall No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But Sunday’s story was the same as it’s been all season long: New England simply couldn't get stops at critical times.
Those who followed the Patriots this year knew that was the biggest question mark about the defense heading into the playoffs. They also failed to force a turnover after being very opportunistic all year in that department.
With the offense struggling to score, an even bigger onus fell on the shoulders of the defense.
Throughout the entire season, the offense rarely put the defense in bad situations with ill-timed turnovers. Sunday, the offense failed to continue that trend and the defense couldn’t bail them out, as New York converted four of five red zone trips into all 28 points.
There’s an old adage that says those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. New England fans assumed the team was as good as its record, but yet managed to forget the painful lesson of the '07 season: Offense doesn't win in the playoffs. Defense does.
To paraphrase a line from The Untouchables, on Sunday when it came to each team’s defense, the Patriots brought a knife to a gunfight.
After all the trash talking, chest pounding and name calling (that means you, Antonio Cromartie), the Jets are the team who will be game planning for the Steelers this week, while the Patriots are left to wonder how many more shots they’ll have to hoist the Lombardi Trophy on the watch of Belichick and Brady?
For all but two games this season, the Patriots and their fans became intimately familiar with the thrill of victory.
On Sunday, the Jets introduced them to the agony of de-feet.
But in the end, The Big Tuna was right.
You are what you are.
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