Will we see the aggressive Patriots defense that shut out the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago in the regular-season finale? Or will we see the Patriots defense that was ranked 25th throughout the season, including 29th against the pass?
We will find out if New England's much-maligned defense is playoff-ready when the Patriots (12-4) host the Houston Texans (13-4) Sunday at Gillette Stadium. New England has the worst defense statistically of the eight remaining teams in the NFL playoffs. In the AFC, the defenses of the Denver Broncos (No. 2), Houston Texans (No. 7) and Baltimore Ravens (No. 17) are all ranked significantly ahead of the Patriots.
The Patriots have made several strides defensively from a season ago. But if the old NFL cliché of "defense wins championships" still stands, this could be what derails New England's Super Bowl hopes.
"Obviously when you get a group of guys together for an extended period of time, you're going to get better," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said of the defensive improvements. "But there are also things we had to improve at -- especially communication, getting on the same page and doing things like that."
Last season, New England's porous defense didn't cost the team until the final drive in the Super Bowl. When the Patriots needed a big stop in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants, they couldn't get it and lost the Super Bowl for the second time in four years.
This season, New England's defense is younger, faster and more dynamic. The Patriots were 31st in total defense in 2011 and improved six spots in 2012. But is that good enough?
The Patriots' biggest strength defensively is their physical front seven. New England is ninth against the run, allowing just 101.9 rushing yards per game. Baltimore tailback Ray Rice is the only player this season to rush for more than 100 yards against the Patriots. Two of New England's seven Pro Bowlers this season are on defense in Mayo and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who must lead the way in the playoffs.
"We have guys that have been here before and we have guys that haven’t been here before," said Wilfork, who won his only Super Bowl with the Patriots in his rookie season in 2004. "So our job is to make these guys understand what it takes to win, especially in a situation like this."
Stopping the run will be huge against Houston. Texans tailback Arian Foster is the foundation of Houston's offense. The Texans have the eighth-best rushing attack in the NFL, and that opens up Houston's dangerous play-action passes.
New England trounced Houston 42-14 in Week 14. The Patriots stuffed Foster in that meeting, holding the running back to just 46 yards on 15 carries. But Foster is coming to Gillette Stadium with momentum after a 140-yard performance in a wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
"I expect to see the best. Whatever they have, I expect to see it -- the kitchen sink if it’s called for," Wilfork said. "But last week you saw why [Foster] is one of the top offensive players in the game -- not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game."
New England did very well defensively in the last draft. That is one of the key reasons the Patriots are younger, physical and more athletic. Rookies Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Tavon Wilson and Alfonzo Dennard have all made an impact.
"Those guys really bring a lot of energy. Those guys are hungry," Mayo said. "Those guys have really kind of fit in very well. They came in trying to learn as much as they could. I always talk about when I came in as a rookie trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I could, and those guys have done the same."
Talib is easily New England's best cover corner and will see a lot of Houston Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson in this game.
"Talib's ability to match up on the opponent's best receiver is huge," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "They now play much more man coverage and blitz more, which helps an average pass rush. It gives Bill Belichick more options, which is exactly what he wants."
New England's defense still has a sour taste in its mouth from last year's postseason. The Patriots cruised in the divisional round against Denver, won a tight contest against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, then had a chance to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. But Eli Manning's heroics against New England's defense killed the Patriots down the stretch. With 3:46 left in the game, New England allowed New York to drive 88 yards on nine plays for the game-winning touchdown.
If the Patriots aim to win a title this year, their defense must be ready to step up and make key stops throughout the playoffs.
"Everyone in the league is hungry for a Super Bowl," Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich said. "I want to get back there just like everybody else that’s in the playoffs. The No. 1 goal in your head coming into training camp is, 'Let's get to the Super Bowl.'
"This is what we play the game for."