DESPITE DEFENSIVE WOES, THIS TEAM BUILT TO WIN SUPER BOWLBy Chris Forsberg
Let's cut to the chase: The Patriots absolutely have a Super Bowl-caliber offense helmed by a three-time champion in quarterback Tom Brady. So this week's question boils down to whether New England's defense is capable of doing enough to aid the offense in that title quest.
Despite trouble signs through eight weeks of the season, one can argue that the Patriots can most certainly win another Super Bowl as currently constructed.
Let's start with the negatives: New England ranks dead last in the league in allowing 424.1 yards per game. The last team to lead the league in total yards on offense and finish last in yards allowed on defense was the 1985 San Diego Chargers, who finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
Here's the difference with New England: Its offense is good enough to mask many of the defensive deficiencies. If the Patriots are able to maintain a bend-but-don't-break defense into the playoffs, it won't matter how much yardage the team gives up.
Even after Sunday's loss in Pittsburgh, New England ranks 17th in the league in points allowed (22.9 points per game), but is ninth in point differential (plus-6.0 points per game).
Jump back to New England's first Super Bowl season in 2001. The Patriots ranked 24th in yards allowed (334.5 yards per game), but had a similar defensive philosophy (ranked third in red zone percentage that season at 38.8 percent and sixth in points allowed at 17 per game).
The biggest question is can the Patriots win with a secondary that's leaning on the likes of Antwaun Molden and Phillip Adams as the Nos. 3 and 4 cornerbacks? History tells us name recognition hardly matters at that spot. The final roster from the 2004 Patriots featured four cornerbacks in Earthwind Moreland, Hank Poteat, Randall Gay and Asante Samuel. The year before, they featured just three pure corners in Ty Law, Tyrone Poole and Samuel. In 2001, the corners were Law, Otis Smith, Terrance Shaw and Terrell Buckley.
All of which confirms the Patriots have won without a star-studded secondary. When Devin McCourty and Kyle Arlington play to their potential, you can make the case that the Patriots have won with less (even if the defenses, overall, probably had more talent top to bottom).
The caution flag is the fact that the Patriots have lost their last three playoff games in large part because other, more talented defenses were able to knock New England's offense out of sync and the team's defense couldn't do enough to win those games. At some point, the Patriots need their defense to step up when the offense falters.
Regardless, there's simply too much individual talent -- even if most of it is on the offensive side -- to suggest the Patriots don't have a shot at hoisting another Lombardi Trophy.
IT'S NOT LOOKING PROMISING, BUT IT'S STILL EARLY ENOUGH TO CHANGEBy Mike Reiss
Unless the New England Patriots can figure out a way to repair the porous pass defense and play more complementary football, they look like they could be headed for a third straight early playoff exit.
After giving up more than 300 yards passing in six of the first seven games, things certainly are not looking promising for the Patriots' secondary. The good news, though, is that the Patriots are 5-2 and still have plenty of time to fix what ails them.
One of the things Bill Belichick has preached since his arrival as head coach in 2000 is the importance of complementary football -- offense, defense and special teams. When those three areas are working in concert, complementing each other, it's a championship recipe.
The Patriots don't have that right now.
It doesn't just fall on the inconsistent defense, although that has to be the primary area of concern, specifically in the ever-changing, revolving-door secondary. Special teams have also been up and down, and the offense -- while clearly the best unit of the three -- has sprung some leaks when it comes to protecting Tom Brady and consistently getting open against man coverage.
That's where we are now, some noticeable chinks in the team's armor following Sunday's 25-17 road loss to the Steelers. The Steelers exploited the Patriots' defensive deficiencies and the trickle-down effect was that the offense had the ball for only 20 minutes. It's a tribute to the Steelers that they could pull it off, and also a reflection of the lack of balanced play from the Patriots, a problem we've seen at other times over the first seven games of the season.
The Patriots don't want to become a replica of Dan Marino's old Dolphins teams, or even the Colts of the early 2000s. Both were one-dimensional.
Thankfully for the Patriots, there is still time. What the picture looks like now could be significantly altered by the end of the season.
Thinking back to last year, the Packers looked anything but Super Bowl contenders in a 7-3 loss to the Lions in Week 14. That's a good example of how quickly things can change, and why questions like these really can't be answered right now. Every team in the NFL is flawed, so if not the Patriots, then who?
There is always hope.
To restore more of it, though, the Patriots need to tighten up all three areas of their operation in the coming weeks. Until they play consistent complementary football, the outlook for January and beyond will remain cloudy.