The New England Patriots have nearly reached critical mass with their injuries on offense. Now, the injury bug is beginning to take hold of the defense, with linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive lineman Dominique Easley both dealing with injuries.
But as the pieces have fallen off one-by-one on offense, the scales have started to tip toward the defensive side of the ball as the Patriots find new ways to win.
Early in the season, the Patriots were on pace to be one of the highest-scoring offenses in league history. With 249 points through the first seven games, the Patriots were averaging 35.6 points per game. At that rate, they would have finished with 569 points, which would have been the third-most all-time behind their 2007 season (589 points) and the Denver Broncos' 2013 season (606 points).
|Patriots scoring averages, 2015|
|Games||First 7||Last 4||All 11|
Instead, their pace has slowed to 31.5 points per game, which will leave them with 504 points on the season if they continue at this rate. For some perspective, they are already the only team in NFL history to score more than 500 points in a season on four separate occasions (2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012) and they still rank second in the league in scoring, despite their average dipping by four points per game.
That's because the Patriots have scored 27 points or fewer in each of their past four games and averaged just 24.5 points per game in that stretch—a sudden dip of 11 points per game.
But the world keeps spinning, and the Patriots keep on winning. Why? Their defense.
The Patriots have allowed more than 28 points just two times all season. The first was against the Buffalo Bills after a blowout for the Patriots turned into a late flurry for the Bills with three touchdowns in the space of eight minutes. The other time was against the Denver Broncos on Sunday night. There's a caveat, as it took until overtime for the Broncos to get to 30, and they only scored 24 in regulation.
But while the strong showings on defense were a luxury before, they are a necessity now.
The Patriots can't afford to go back to their porous run defense from the beginning of the season, which allowed the Broncos to rush for 179 yards after holding their previous five opponents under 100 rushing yards. Of course, they might not have given up so much yardage on the ground if Hightower had been on the field.
Before Hightower's injury, the Broncos had 15 rushes for 43 yards. After his injury, the Broncos had 17 carries for 136 yards and three touchdowns.
That just goes to show how important he is to the defense, but the Patriots have stockpiled talent on that side of the ball for a long time.
Going back through their past seven first-round picks, six have been defensive players, including Hightower, Easley, defensive end Chandler Jones and safety Devin McCourty. Integral starters like linebacker Jamie Collins, safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Logan Ryan were high draft picks, as well.
The Patriots defense certainly has the talent to run the table from here on out, and their remaining schedule isn't exceedingly difficult, either. Only two of their five upcoming opponents have a winning record (the New York Jets and Houston Texans are both 6-5), and the Jets offense is the only one that ranks higher than 20th in scoring.
If the Patriots are going to preserve the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, it's probably not going to be because of their offense. It's up to their defense to continue playing at the level they reached in the middle of the season and give the offense enough breathing room to afford a few hiccups.