New England Patriots  

 

Despite defensive deficiencies, don't sleep on the Patriots

Under the radar is not exactly the phrase one thinks of when the names Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are tossed around. Yet, the Patriots could very well win the Super Bowl with nary a vote of confidence from league observers and fans.

Has any team that's 11-3 and currently a top seed -- not to mention a team that's won three Super Bowls in the past decade -- ever gone so unnoticed? It's unbelievable. Well, until you watch New England's defense.

The league's 32nd-ranked unit doesn't exactly solicit confidence as it allows offenses to score more than David Duchovny. The outlook for the friendly defense got worse with the season-ending leg injury to Andre Carter and his 10 sacks.

Who cares? When a club scores 30-plus points like it's nothing, the need for a stout defense becomes awfully diminished. It also applies incredible pressure on opposing quarterbacks to keep up in an inevitable track meet where, more often than not, they can't. (See: Tim Tebow, Rex Grossman, Mark Sanchez, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Dan Orlovsky, Vince Young.)

The Patriots are on a roll that would normally rile up the masses, but it has barely resulted in a smolder across the pro football landscape. Take a look at these point totals over the past six weeks: 41, 34, 31, 38, 34, and 37. The 41-spot was put up on a Broncos team that had allowed an average of 17 points over its previous six games. The week before, Brady destroyed a Redskins defense that only gave the red-hot Eli Manning 10 points worth of love last weekend.

It's easy to say that defense wins championships when it's been proven time and again. Look no further than the supercharged Packers, whose offense got all the pub last season while their stout defense may have been the real reason behind the Lombardi Trophy -- Dom Capers' unit allowed 15 points per game, second in the NFL.

The way Brady and his weapons are playing, it will be difficult for any team, including the Steelers and Ravens, to stop the Patriots.

Yes, Pittsburgh slowed down the Pats at Heinz Field earlier in the season. But Brady has been on fire since, while the Steelers offense has been spotty with shoddy offensive line play and Ben Roethlisberger's high ankle sprain. The Pittsburgh defense might be forced to stay on the field quite a bit more in mid-January.

The Steelers and Ravens had their butts handed to them in Week 15, while New England just rolled along, halting a Denver winning streak at six. Despite the Broncos getting up 16-7, at home no less, New England calmly put on an offensive clinic en route to a 41-23 victory. Call it Bradymania. Or, call it just another Patriot Sunday.

That's precisely how fans seem to view it, too. Ho-hum. That is until New England potentially gets to the Super Bowl, which can easily happen. Pittsburgh has a wounded quarterback and just got physically dominated at Candlestick. The Ravens' "franchise" quarterback is completing 57.3 percent of his passes, 25th in the league. Houston is missing its best defensive player (Mario Williams), best offensive player (Andre Johnson) and its own franchise quarterback (Matt Schaub).

Best of all, those points may all be moot because of the points that are put up at such a rapid rate by Bill Belichick's club. The offense has been literally unstoppable. Forget Brady for a moment. Wes Welker will likely have a 1,600-yard year, and he already has more than 100 catches. Rob Gronkowski has already set a record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end with 15 (he also has one rushing). And Aaron Hernandez's 68 catches would lead 29 other teams in receptions by a tight end.

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"They gotta utilize that guy more," said Mike Lombardi, my NFL Network colleague. We were watching highlights of Pats-Broncos in the green room at NFL West, shaking our heads at the sheer dismantling of what has been a solid defense as of late in Denver.

Defense wins championships. But an unstoppable offense can overcome bad defense on some occasions. The 2011 postseason tournament in the AFC might very well be that time. Additionally, I'd say that leading the NFL in red-zone trips, yards per play within the red zone, yards per play inside the 30, and fewest dropped passes, while scoring 31.2 points per game, constitutes an attack that is unstoppable.

That scoring figure leads the AFC. As do the Patriots' total passing yards per game, overall yards per game, big pass plays (20-plus yards), first downs made, and on and on.

This not to say that playing defense doesn't matter. The loss of Carter in Belichick's 3-4 certainly hurts, but as long as the offense produces the way it has, opposing quarterbacks stepping onto the Gillette Stadium field will carry tremendous anxiety. Imagine knowing that if you didn't score 35 points -- probably on the road -- in a playoff game, your team likely will lose.

So before you anoint Baltimore or Pittsburgh as the best teams in the AFC, or flat out give the Lombardi Trophy to the Packers, keep in mind that someone has to stop New England. Offense wins championships, too.

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